The Seer – Snippet 08
It meant that Restarn thought Innel and his brother significant enough for the news to carry. And that meant Innel could push.
He met the king’s look, forced himself to appear composed.
“I must see to my mother. To make funeral arrangements.”
“No funeral. No gift ceremony. A criminal, Innel.”
If Pohut had won, it would be Innel’s body lying on this cold marble floor and Innel’s dead spirit that would wander aimlessly, only the memory gift ceremony to help him find his way to the great Beyond. Without which, he would be ostracized by family and friends, lost forever, wandering the twilight of death.
Or so the story went.
More importantly, the most dangerous place to stand with the king was between compliance and challenge, where he would notice you but not respect you.
“Mother could not bear that, Sire,” Innel said. “And so I cannot not bear it.” Not even close to true, and they both knew it, but the best he could do on short notice. “The gift ceremony. A full funeral. Please, Your Majesty.”
The annoyed look Restarn gave him now made him wonder if he’d gone too far. But then the king shrugged, the shoulders of his robe barely moving.
“Be quick about it, then.”
As Innel began to reach for his brother’s body, the king said, “No. Leave it.”
Leave his brother? For a moment he didn’t know what to do. Days on end, aching to put him down, to have him gone, but now he did not want to walk away.
No. Pohut had betrayed him. He was rotting meat. Nothing more.
And it was the king’s command.
With one last look at his brother’s body, Innel bowed and backed out of the room. Around him the Seneschal and various aides rushed in.
In the hallway the waiting crowd opened a path for him. He had walked out of his audience with the king. He met their eyes, looking for reactions. Many began to leave, perhaps coming to the conclusion that a free Innel was not wise entertainment. The crowd melted back.
He walked toward the residences, where his mother’s room was. Srel fell into step with him. By now the smaller man would know.
“What would you have me do?” Srel asked.
So Srel was still loyal. He felt a flash of relief.
“Plan a funeral for tomorrow. Tell the Cohort to be there. Make sure they know I’m not asking.”
Srel nodded and peeled off.
At the stairs up to the residences, Innel paused, alone for the first moment since he had entered the city. Really, since the night he had left the girl’s shack.
Without his brother’s body. Without a watching crowd.
He put a hand on the wall, his head hanging, breathing deeply for long minutes.
He had done it. He had said the right things. He had survived. This, the hardest trial of his life. His brother would have been proud.
His brother the traitor.
It didn’t matter. Tomorrow Innel would lay his brother’s body next to their father’s in the tombs outside the city, paying close attention to who came to the funeral and who did not, whose eyes were correctly blacked and smeared in the nine directions to show their grief, and those whose were not.
Now that he stood on Cern’s path to the throne, anyone who did not attend the funeral was foolish beyond reckoning, and foolish beyond that if they did not seem to be glad that it was Innel who had returned intact.
He thought of his competition across these many years, Tok and Mulack and Sutarnan and others, of how they had stumbled in ways large and small, losing the king’s backing or slipping in Cern’s esteem. How finally only he and his brother had remained.
As he arrived at his mother’s door, it came to him that he truly was Cern’s last, best choice. All he had to do now was win her back.
The king had been right: his mother knew. He could tell the moment he saw her.
She sat in a plush red chair, head turned away, face buried in a small handkerchief.
“The funeral is tomorrow,” he said, pausing for a response. She snuffled quietly. “You and Cahlen will be there.” A sound and a small movement with her head. Was it a nod or another sob? “Mother? Do you understand me?”
Both, it seemed. She curled forward, head down, shaking.
His mother had long seemed to him a fragile flower meant for other soil. Palace life had not suited her, not from the first.
“I had no choice,” he said evenly, walking the small room, feeling the need to be moving. “He plotted against me. Had been arranging my downfall for three years. He came at me, Mother. He meant to kill me. Do you hear me?”
Again, the shaking, wordless sound.
He sighed his frustration, wondering why she was still here. The king did not make a habit of keeping in the residences those were not useful to him. Like the women he’d bedded who produced to children. Cern’s mother, the only woman to provide him a living heir, but unable to conceive a second one, had finally been sent to a small town in Epatel. Ostensibly for her health, though ironically she had died there of some high desert illness.
No, he knew why his mother was here. It was to remind him and his brother of where they had come from and might be sent back to, if they did not perform. The simple power the king had over them. As if they might forget.
The door opened and in came his sister, Cahlen. She slammed the door shut behind her, eyes casting about, faced blotched with red.
Cahlen and his mother were both small, slender women, but there the similarity ended. His mother had survived palace life by being unnoticed. If she bore any ill-will toward the king for conscripting their father into the military for an expansion war that he quietly disapproved of, that had then killed him, and then giving her family business away, she never showed it. Silent, fragile, and well-behaved — she simply survived.
Cahlen was something else entirely. He remembered having to explain to his sister why she couldn’t wear the green and cream of the servants, why she must wear the palace retainer red and black regalia instead.
“I like the green better,” she had said stubbornly.
“That’s not important,” he’d said, already losing his patience with her but desperate to make her understand. He tried another approach. “Servants don’t work with the birds.”
That had been sufficient. The subject never came up again.
Today she wore appropriate colors, though her trousers were too long, her shirt overlarge, her shoulders spotted with bird droppings, and her hair uneven, as if someone had cut it in dim light using a dirty stew bowl as a guide.
Her gaze speared him and she charged, faster than he would have thought her capable. Once close, she began to batter him with tight, hard fists. He pushed back, trying to hold her at arm’s length. With his greater reach it should have been easy, but his exhaustion and her wild thrashing made her nearly impossible to control.
While he was busy trying to keep her from hitting him she kicked him in the knee, quite a bit harder than he expected. He swore and stepped back.
Again she rushed him, lips pulled back, snapping her teeth. Instinctively he raised an arm, the way he would have with one of the fighting dogs, and cocked it back as if to hit her in the snout. He doubted it would even slow her down, though, not when she was like this.
Across the room his mother stood, holding her hands over her ears, and gave a piercing scream.
At this the door opened. In burst three palace guards, all of whom Innel knew. As he tried to make sense of this unlikely intrusion, Cahlen came at him again, and the three guards sprinted toward her.
This had gone far enough. He let Cahlen step in close and put his weight behind a full-force push to the middle of her chest, propelling her backward while the guards stumbled to the side to avoid her. Cahlen sprawled, ass-first onto an open space on the carpeted floor. Now on her back, she stayed there, breathing hard, glaring up at him.
He turned his attention to the guards.
“What are you doing?”
He had never before seen palace guards break into a private residential room. Not for screaming, not for crashes of ceramic broken against walls. Not even for cries for help. Gossip would follow all that, certainly.
But guards? Never.
“Get out,” he told them. They hesitated, the two looking to the one clearly in command. Nalas, a man he knew. Then, with more force, he repeated: “Out. Now.” Nalas tilted his head toward the door, taking the other two outside.
Innel looked at his sister on the floor, still breathing hard, and wondered what was going on in her head. Cahlen could go from dead calm to bruising fury in an instant, then be over it in the next. A drenching rainstorm turned abruptly to blue skies. Once it had fully passed, the storm would be over. But had it?