Field research was expensive. So securing funding was as much a part of a field researcher's job as cleaning pottery, or preparing articles for publication.
As far as that part of Meri's job went, she'd gotten on to a good thing with His Grace, Arrin Brase, Duke of Atwater and Brase. Seven thousand imperials a year, when she could've run a dig on four thousand. But as far as her actual field research went, Arrin Brase was worse than a sudden hailstorm, when they'd gotten a half dozen complete vessels loose from the soil and ready for photography.
Vessels could be reassembled. When Arrin visited his site, the damage took a good deal more work to repair.
But it was time for Arrin's yearly visit to his excavation at Artivo, so Meri was waiting at the airport, with a portfolio of photographs that he would ignore, and two silver ewers, released by the government of Artivo in deference to the Duke's generous contributions to their cultural patrimony, which he would take back to grace a curio cabinet, until they were hocked by the young Viscount Perry Atwater, after he enjoyed his habitual success with cards.
This year, the flight the duke had chartered landed on schedule, so he was in a jolly mood as he debarked, face round and red beneath a white tropical helmet. "Ah, it's the young Ms. Hathorn! Good to see you, Meri, good to see you!" He came over, and shook her hand vigorously. Then a cloud came over his face. "Afraid Perry wasn't able to make it out this year. Poor old thing; caught some sort of flu or something. Well, I suppose you'll have to put off your attempts to ensnare a Viscount until you're back at Atwater Hall!"
"I'm sorry that your son is ill," she said. "I hope he recovers soon."
"I'm sure you do," said Arrin. "I'm sure you do! Well, anyway. To business; what've the tivoes let you take this time?"
As soon as he'd gotten past the customs agent, Arrin had dropped his suitcase into Meri's arms, and made straight for her jeep. So there weren't that many people around, let alone that many people who spoke Ellic. Still, given that the government of Artivo could shut down her excavations at a word, Meri would've preferred if his grace would use less dismissive terms for the locals.
"They Aritvans have released a pair of silver ewers, from the Ma'adon period—three thousand years old, or so," she said, taking one from her satchel and passing it over.
"Very nice," said Arrin. "Better if it was gold, but take what the beggars give us, eh? Last year, you know, with that carved jade thing? Haven't seen it around lately, but I'm sure it'll turn up. I showed it to old Brightsien, and his eyes beetled out like he was having a stroke! Marvelous, that was."
"I hadn't expected the authorities to release that," said Meri. "It's one of the finest pieces of pre-Laome carving that I've recovered, but I suppose that the architecture on grid 7 left them in a generous mood--"
Arrin waved a hand. "Whatever keeps them happy is fine by me," he said. "Now, let's see what I've found this year."
The jeep was loud enough at highway speeds that conversation was impossible, which gave Meri a respite which ended as soon as they got to the site.
It was after lunch, so the workers were taking their hour of sitting in the shade, which, of course, infuriated Arrin.
"Go on!" he said. "Back to it; hop it! I'm not paying you all to siesta like that. Go on, pick and shovel, boys—lively, now!"
At least some of the workers had been there on previous years, and knew what to expect with Arrin's visits, and they were enough to get the others moving, even though working in the heat of the day meant that they'd be working harder for worse results then if they had their break.
Two days earlier, they'd come across what looked like the handle of a votive chalice, which was exactly the sort of thing that was needed; Meri'd covered it back up, and when Arrin decided to pitch in, she pointed him at that corner, and let him work. Well, "work." He took it upon himself to teach one of the hired workers how to use a pick properly and laid to furiously on a patch of what might have been a floor, and which might not have been—his demonstration was distressingly thorough. Then he hid a gold imperial near where another of them was working, laughed uproariously at the man's excitement at his discovery, and then demanded his imperial back.
After he uprooted half of Meri's luck-wards trying to decide which one to take home as a souvenir, he settled down enough to take an interest in the chalice. And, as usual, he started jerking at the handle, trying to pull the whole thing loose. She was down in the square with him, doing her best to convince him to excavate in an orderly manner, when Es-isivi-An came by to visit.
And it was Arrin who saw him, not Meri. "What's this?" he asked. "Back to your shovel, man!"
"It's not one of the workers," said Meri, giving Es-isivi-An an apologetic look. "Greetings, O wise—" she started in Artivo.
Arrin cut her off. "Well, if he's not a worker, he shouldn't be here," he said.
"He's a shaman," explained Meri. "This is his—"
"We have a license for excavation, and you're the shaman here," said Arrin. He clapped his hands, made a shooing motion at Es-isivi-An. "Out!"
"We need his—"
"Balderdash!" said Arrin. "You have the certification, don't you? Cost me enough damn money. We have all the shamen we need."
"I passed, yes," said Meri. Artivo law meant that she couldn't lead the excavation unless she was qualified by a senior shaman. "But I'm not an expert—I'm just. . . ." she trailed off, seeing the look on Es-isivi-An's face.
"I came here to discuss your finding," he said, and not in Artivo. "And I receive insults from a fathead."
"If you are not out of my excavation by the time I count to three," said Arrin, "I will have you shot."
Es-isivi-An produced the carapace of a land-crab from inside his shirt, tossed it into the square in front of Meri, and headed back to the forest, head held high.
"What on earth?" asked Arrin, picking up the carapace. "Is it valuable?"
"It's a challenge," said Meri. "It's for you, but you aren't a shaman, so I'll have to take it. At this time tomorrow, I will have to face him in a contest of skills."
Arrin clapped delightedly. "My goodness!" he said. "I don't suppose I have to pay him for this?"
"This is serious," said Meri. "People die in these contests. Es-isivi-An is kindly disposed, I guess, but I've never seen him so furious. If I—"
"Nonsense," said Arrin. "That fellow wouldn't dare kill a white; he knows what he'd get if he did."
"He'll get another notch in his cane," said Meri. "He has eight. He's the senior shaman of the northern district, and in charge of the--"
Arrin shook his head. "It was kind of you to arrange this," he said. "And if you need some time to prepare, I can handle things here, have no worry about that."
Meri hesitated. There were few ideas worse than leaving Arrin in charge, but she did need to talk to someone about fighting Es-isivi-An. "I think I can stay around until it's time to close up for the day," she said. "But if you could handle getting things back to the compound, I would appreciate it."
"Have no fear," said Arrin. "You go potter off to some witch-doctor for a potion, and I'll handle all the work; I've been in the field for years, after all."
"Thank you," said Meri, and as Arrin was oblivious to tone of voice, he smiled blandly, and went back to hacking at the dirt.
The reason that Meri had concentrated on Artivan archaeology was because she had a response from one of the totemic figurines in the university collection—not much of a response, and the tree frog wasn't one the stronger totems, but it meant she could qualify as an Artivan shaman. So she'd crammed for the examination, and squeaked through on the practical, and the excavations disease-wards, and the curse-wards and the bug-wards were all her work.
She'd squeaked by, but she'd passed, and her wards more or less worked. Which didn't mean that she was going to be able to match Es-isivi-An. He was a sector administrator, and a genuine expert. When one of her workers collapsed with convulsive fever, Es-isivi-An had pulled the disease out, like he was pulling a loose thread from a shirt, and the man had completely recovered within an hour. And while she didn't think he was going to kill her, he was going to set out to make her look like a fool, in retaliation for the insult that he'd gotten.
Which was almost as bad. If news got around that she wasn't any good, the workers would lose faith in her curse-wards and her disease-wards, and no matter how much Arrin was willing to pay for an excavation, she wouldn't be able to get people willing to take that money. They got the votive chalice out nearly complete, and the bits that Arrin had broken off would probably be restorable. And then she left her excavation in his hands, and went off to find At-eliatan-Asin, who was the only shaman in the region who was close to a match of Es-isivi-An. He was also far less well-regarded than Es-isivi-An, but Meri would take what she could get.
At-eliatan-Asin lived in a well-off suburb, in a house that was little different than the others on his block. The only major exceptions were the canopy fox carvings on his doorframe and fence, and the fact that he lacked the permanently haunted expression that all his neighbors seemed to have.
The canopy fox was a shy creature. There were a few that had territories near the dig-site, and Meri could hear them calling at night; once or twice they'd gotten into the stores, and made off with a chain of sausages, or scattered the corn flour all across the dining tent. The canopy fox was one of the major totems, and known for a sly, cruel sense of humor.
Meri had met At-eliatan-Asin at a university function; he was a lecturer in botany and biology, and he'd urged her to come visit, if she needed help. Knowing what she did about the canopy fox, she'd done her best to remain politely distant, but he had made the offer, and she needed help.
If he wouldn't help, she was sunk, and she could see the canopy fox glinting in his eyes as he realized that. He certainly didn't let her hurry to the point; he invited her up to the balcony, where his husband brought out cups of sweet tea, and bowls of rose incense, and he talked for a bit about her finds, about scientific archaeology in general, how the weather had been.
He wasn't actually interested in the dig—Es-isivi-An was, and difference showed. Well, one of the two virtues of the tree frog was patience. The other one was rapid flight, but that didn't seem as relevant. So Meri waited, and after a time, he let her explain her problem.
Again, the glint of the canopy fox. "I have just the thing," he said, not even drawing it out; they went immediately back inside, to his library, where he found the object he was looking for, and passed it to her. A smooth bit of stone, with faint, hexagonal incisions. "Toss it at Es-isivi-An, as soon as things start. You'll have to loosen the strands holding the magic in place, but you can manage that. Once it's loosed, well. It'll ruffle his carapace, anyway."
And then he bundled her out of his house without taking the time to explain what it would do, or let her think too hard about the risks she was taking just handling something that a canopy fox handed her.
The truth was, while it might have been a little funny to set something off when she was out driving back to the site, it wasn't too likely that he'd have done that. The upcoming challenge would be a much more amusing time to make things go wrong. It was even possible that the joke that At-eliatan-Asin had planned was to make a largely untrained interloper beat Es-isivi-An, but she didn't put much faith in that possibility.
Instead, she kept the rock within the best curse wards that she had, after making entirely sure that Arrin would not be able to get anywhere near it, and slept as best as she could.
The next morning, Arrin set up a pitch for the challenge. Naturally, he'd chosen the area that they'd cleared to excavate but hadn't started in on, because it was clear, and because there was nothing like a sorcerous duel to keep everything pristine for an excavation. Then he busied himself bringing out every single chair the excavation had, so that the spectators would have a good view of the proceedings, and setting up the movie cameras, so the event would be preserved for posterity.
Meri considered putting a stop to that, but Arrin would sulk, and would do something worse, and she really did need his money, and well, why not—if she was going to lose, may as well lose in front of everyone, atop what was probably a Ma'adon administrative complex. It was only the fact that he didn't know a damn thing about Artivo religion that kept Arrin from making banners with angry tree frogs and cowering land crabs.
Es-isivi-An arrived in style, wearing the regalia of a land-crab shaman; porcupine quill breastplate, and headdress with quill feathers and iron and glass beads. His cane was inlaid with ivory and fragments of carapace, spelled into rock-like permanence and solidity.
"Is this, then, the field you've chosen?" he asked.
Meri gave him a pained look. She hadn't chosen the fight, she hadn't chosen the field, she hadn't chosen any of it. But the question required an answer. "Yes," she said.
The chairs had all filled. It wasn't just the workers—they'd told people, who'd told people, so there was a sea of brown Artivo faces, all waiting for a show. And there was At-eliatan-Asin among them. Meri had no idea what he'd given her, but from his expression, he thought that something funny was about to happen.
"Then let it begin," said Es-isivi-An, taking up his place on the side opposite her. Meri threw the stone before she thought about it, knowing that if she thought too long, she'd lose before the contest began.
It almost wasn't fast enough; the ground beneath her feet had started to twist into claws when she pulled loose the spell from the rock. That was harder than she had expected, and it took most of her strength to do it. If there was nothing there, she wouldn't have enough left to try anything significant.
But there was something there. Enough of a thing that Es-isivi-An let his claws of dirt and stone lapse, half formed. Little gray wasps streaked out from the stone, like the paper wasps that they found out in the forest, and who were so aggressive that roads curved to avoid their nests. Every counter Es-isivi-An attempted released another wasp from the stone, and he was trying a great many counters.
At-eliatan-Asin had come through. The spells for commanding insects were simple enough, and Meri took one of the wasps, aimed it at Es-isivi-An. Or tried to. Instead of going after her target, the wasp turned into two, and they started in after her. That was the joke. There wasn't any way to stop them coming, and there wasn't any way to control them, and the harder they tried to stop it, the worse it would get.
One of the virtues of the tree frog was patience, and the other was rapid flight. Patience didn't apply. Meri started running, as fast as she could.
By leaving the field before Es-isivi-An, she'd forfeited the contest. But she'd been stung by those gray wasps before, and there were dozens, more, buzzing loose from the stone. And while the wouldn't respond to commands, they were responding to instincts; some of the closer observers were already shouting, kicking chairs away, climbing over each other in an attempt to escape.
Included in that number was At-eliatan-Asin, who had apparently expected her to waste more time drawing wasps at herself. And if he didn't have a ward, there wasn't a ward. No more time for looking back. Her jeep was ahead, and Meri became the tree frog, darting away just ahead of the stork or the snake or the wasp.
Not quite ahead of the wasp; there was a sudden sharp sting in her thigh, and it hurt so much she actually did jump, getting into her jeep. Another sting, just behind her ear, and then the motor roared to life, and she was off, the wasps unable to keep up.
Meri headed out to the airport. Unless she missed her guess, His Grace, Arrin Brase, Duke of Atwater and Brase, would be headed in that direction, as soon as the swelling subsided enough for him to get behind a wheel.
She didn't miss her guess. And the swelling hadn't subsided much. It looked as though Arrin had waited until the very last possible moment before trying to escape the wasps—probably thought they'd only sting natives—and as a result, he hadn't escaped many of them.
Arrin had decided on taking one of the excavation's trucks, and Meri was there to help him out as soon as he pulled to a halt.
Angrily, he ignored her offered hand, and as a result nearly wound up face-first in the mud outside the air port.
"Miss Hathorn!" he said. "I do not know to what purpose you arranged that abominable prank, but I assure you, you shall regret it. Perhaps you had something a laugh there, Miss Hathorn. Perhaps you can snicker up your sleeve at what you've done. But you have let a fortune slip through your quisling little fingers."
He waved one of his fingers in her face, and whether or not it was quisling, it was certainly not little; it had started plump, and had been plumped further by the attentions of a number of angry wasps. "Our association is at an end, Miss Hathorn. And I can assure you, Parry will have nothing further to do with a creature such as yourself. And you may rest assured, Miss Hathorn, that once everyone I know hears exactly what you've done to me, you will never again find any connection to a class deservedly above yours."
If Arrin actually made it clear that she was responsible for getting him stung by wasps, Meri had a feeling that regardless of how he painted the circumstances, she'd be getting holiday cards from every duke and duchess in the Four Kingdoms.
"You are a very stupid man, your Grace," she said. "I hadn't even imagined that it was possible to spend twenty years in the field without learning a single thing about field technique. Everything that has happened here was entirely your fault, and if you want your son to be as irresistible to ladies as you imagine him to be, you might suggest that he gamble less, and bathe more. Good day."
For the first and only time in her experience, the Duke of Atwater and Brase was entirely without words. He'd find some soon enough, so Meri returned to her jeep, and headed into town, leaving Arrin to swelter at the airport until the next flight out, which wouldn't be for hours.
Given how close the workers had been to the wasps, it didn't seem likely that there'd be any work done that day. And given what she'd said to Arrin, it didn't seem likely that she was going to be able to patch things over with him on her return, no matter how contrite she acted. Which would mean crawling from one government agency to another looking for supplementary grants and good-will funding, and all that.
It was time to get drunk, so Meri went into town, parked her jeep by the pub, and started drinking. She'd lost, by forfeit, but it had been close enough to a draw that nobody would be doubting the efficacy of her curse-wards, anyway. Maybe she could fund the excavation like that—set up a shop and sell insect wards during the off-season.
Probably not, though. She sat, and drank rice beer and fig liquor until the aches in her thigh and behind her ear were gone. She had said some of what she had wanted to say to Arrin, but other than that, it had not been a good day.
"My apologies," said Es-isivi-An, and Meri was relaxed enough that she didn't even jump to hear him talking right next to her. Wasn't relaxed enough for him to be a hallucination, though.
"Likewise," said Meri. "I asked At-eliatan-Asin for something that would help, but he didn't entirely explain what sort of help he was offering."
"Canopy foxes," said Es-isivi-An.
"Canopy foxes," agreed Meri.
"And I take it that the fathead who caused these problems is currently at the airport, grumbling about how us useless natives can't even get a plane fueled efficiently. It'd be a pity if someone called down a thunderstorm or two, and kept the plane here for another day."
Meri looked up from her beer; Es-isivi-An gave her an apologetic shrug. "It's been a dry year," he said. There were a few welts left from wasp stings on his nose and cheek, but he didn't seem too upset about that.
"He was unquestionably an ass," she said. "But it's not going to be easy to find someone willing to give quite as generously as he did."
"Surely, the university--"
"The Northans College has given me a research budget of four hundred and nine imperials, with an additional hundred and fifty for travel expenses. The university of Artivo contributes ninety-seven pesi—call it another five hundred imperials, or so. A cultural development grant from the central government is two hundred more pesi. The Duke of Atwater and Brase gave seven thousand imperials a year, and I rather doubt that he'll be donating quite that much in advance of our next season."
"But surely, the administrative complex—that's the key to understanding the relationship between province and crown in the middle Ma'adon period."
Meri shrugged. "I'll see what I can get, poke around for grants. Three, maybe four years, I should be able to put another dig together. Probably not as much work as we've been doing, but we should be able to close out the squares we've got open, anyway."
"You don't need sixteen hundred pesi a year to dig, surely," said Es-isivi-An.
"No," said Meri. "Could be, we could scrape by on a thousand, maybe if we started getting volunteers from the local schools. But the finds need to be cataloged and restored and published, and it all takes time and money, which I no longer have."
"I see," said Es-isivi-An. "I should not have . . . how you managed to work with that man for as many years as you have escapes me. He spoke five words to me, and I wanted to kill him."
"It didn't take a word with me," said Meri. "He introduced himself with a pinch. But while academics do not have much experience in having money, we get a thorough education in scrounging for it."
Es-isivi-An shook his head. "You'd be better off weaving curse-wards," he said.
Meri shrugged. "Unless I can find another patron, there's a good chance I will be."
They were at the bar a little longer, and then Es-isivi-An said his farewells, and got a driver to take her back to the dig.
Arrin's last checks had already cleared, and since there was a good chance that this was going to be her last season Meri pushed to get things finished and documented, or protected for the off-season. In terms of physical damage, Arrin's visit had been shorter than usual, so there wasn't that much that needed to be salvaged, and it added at least an extra day of productive work, since she didn't have to shepherd him around the site.
Es-isivi-An and At-eliatan-Asin both helped with the recovery from the wasps, but most of the workers wanted Meri to handle it for them. It was a simple enough spell, and it seemed as though her skills as a shaman had risen in their estimation. Which was fine, but when that was combined with her work on the dig, and her work on getting things properly stored and cataloged, she had about three seconds a day where she wasn't desperately trying to catch up on things that were falling behind.
And Es-isivi-An's next visit happened to coincide with one of those seconds; she'd just finished lunch, and the cataloging was almost done, and it was too damn hot to try to start anything new. She looked up at him as he came out of the forest.
"It's not time for another challenge, is it?" she asked. "The swelling from the last one has just gone down."
Es-isivi-An laughed. "I thought that you had endless experience in talking to people with money."
It was no longer too damn hot to start anything new.
"I hadn't thought that shamen were generally well paid," said Meri, sitting up. "But if you'd like to—"
"Not as a rule, no," said Es-isivi-An. "Health professionals are well regarded, of course, but creeping socialism has been keeping the pay well below what it should be."
"And yet, you have money," said Meri.
"I have the ability to spend money, anyway," said Es-isivi-An. "The regional council offers a thousand to twelve hundred pesi yearly grant for the development of our historical sites. And furthermore, it seems that I have been chosen to administer this grant."
It was as unlikely as beating him in a magical duel. "Was it more thunderstorms, or a plague of ants, this time?"
"No," said Es-isivi-An. "It's a seniority thing. The only reason I haven't held the job is that I haven't had any interest in holding the job."
"But . . ." Meri shook her head. "Why wasn't this posted, on the—"
"Not all of the official functions of the regional council are publicly posted. And besides, there had been some doubts concerning your qualifications to head an excavation; there is the possibility of something happening that cannot be dealt with by amateur curse wards. After your recent success, those doubts have been assuaged."
"It was At-eliatan-Asin's stone," she said. "I just threw it."
"Of course," said Es-isivi-An. "And you can well believe how delighted we all were to see the look on his face, when he realized the part he had played. There is something glorious in a canopy fox caught in someone else's trap."
"But I didn't do anything!" she said.
"You ran," said Es-isivi-An. "It's not necessary for a tree frog to face down a jaguar. But it is necessary for him to be a tree frog."
"But there were seven years with Arrin," said Meri. "If I'd just . . . If I'd—"
"Patience is also part of the tree frog's makeup," said Es-isivi-An, sententiously. "But perhaps it would be wise to run sooner, in the future."
His Grace Arrin Brase, Duke of Atwater and Brase, strongly disapproved of foul language. It was probably for the best that he was several thousand miles away at that point, and no longer Meri's employer, or he would've been most distressed by what she said in response to that piece of advice. ∞