The Seer – Snippet 12
Pelting icy rain continued, slushy and cold. When it warmed even a little, the pouring rains washed the streets clean, flooding sewers and inland farms and lakes.
At least, Innel reflected, the palace’s roof cisterns were full.
Midwinter festival arrived. Cern sat sullenly by her father, drinking herself into unconsciousness and needing to be carried to her rooms, to the scowling of her father. Sachare shook her head sharply at Innel’s offer of help.
A ten-day later, Cern’s glares at him had softened, ever so slightly. Was that the smallest hesitation before she turned her back on him?
His patience was souring. Letting the king’s assigned work languish, he watched for the right opportunity.
It was late afternoon when he followed Cern and her entourage to the glassed-in gardens of the southern court, warmed in the winter months with a ring of heated stones brought from the basement furnace. Inside the glassed-in room, fruit trees were in bud. Beds of green sprouts lined the windows.
Cern’s guards stood arrayed inside and out, a double perimeter of protection. There had not been a successful attempt on the life of a royal since Nials esse Arunkel, the king’s beloved grandmother, was a young queen, and her younger sister’s attempted kidnapping turned particularly nasty, but some attempts had been sufficiently bloody – and politically messy – to inspire both diligence and a solidly capable royal guard.
Innel had trained with many of these guards and knew them well. He exchanged nods with the commander in the doorway, a stout woman with an instinctive and powerful close-in fighting style. She considered Innel for a long moment, then stepped aside to allow him entrance. She turned her back on the room, implying a privacy that was not, in fact, present.
Cern did not look up from the long-tailed red and blue Perripin bird. It stood on her leather-wrapped arm, clutching tightly with long talons. She was feeding it with tongs from a bowl of wiggling white slugs that sat atop a round red marble tabletop.
The bird turned its head sideways to give Innel a suspicious one-eyed look, then snapped up the offered slug, held it high, gulped it down. Innel watched a lump make its way down the bird’s long neck.
Cern held out her arm, and the bird stepped onto the marble tabletop and then over to the bowl of slugs, helping himself as the princess turned an unwelcoming, loathing look on Innel.
“You are trash and a liar,” she said.
He suppressed elation. After months of effort, she was speaking to him.
“Yes, my lady,” he said, bowing his head, aiming for a contrite tone and expression.
“What kind of man kills his own brother? And a man as fine as Pohut was? You are a monstrosity.”
Much warmer. This was the opening he’d been hoping for. And now to step into it.
The story he had given the king after his audience on return from Botaros had started with the truth: that he and his brother had gone to Botaros independently. From there it was invention: a woman, he told the king, claiming to be an unknown granddaughter of Nials esse Arunkel, now dead for decades, was said to look enough like the old queen to be her twin. The granddaughter was telling anyone who would listen that she should be on the throne instead of Restarn.
Treasonous talk, of course. Both he and his brother, Innel said, had gone to Botaros to find out the truth of the matter, intending to bring the granddaughter back to the king for justice.
But Pohut had changed his mind, barring Innel’s way, claiming the granddaughter to be his discovery. Intending to use her against the king, Innel suspected. They had fought, and Pohut pulled a knife, forcing Innel to defend himself.
It was a relatively safe story. Even had the granddaughter existed, a short talk and a quiet relocation to the south border would have taken care of the matter. Not a threat that would much trouble the king.
Restarn listened impatiently, waving his hands for Innel to hurry it along. Clearly he didn’t want details.
Or he knew it wasn’t true.
In any case, he seemed to accept the explanation.
Innel had debated an alternate tale for the king, that it was the brothers’ devotion to and life-long competition for Cern that brought them to blows, but finally discarded that; if Cern found out — if she thought that Pohut had died for her — she would never forget him.
And that would not do; however long it took, he needed Cern to forget his brother and forgive Innel.
So for the princess he needed a more compelling tale.
He kept his tone soft and sorrowful. “There’s more to the story than what I told your father.”
A dangerous double game here, he knew, because with the guard listening, every word would likely get back to the king. Anything he said now had to both be convincing to Cern and transparently benign to Restarn.
A flicker of uncertainty in her eyes, a wary interest.
“You see, my lady, we wanted to find out if the rumors were true.”
“The granddaughter,” she said tightly.
“No? What, then?”
Innel shook his head ruefully. “I’m embarrassed to admit to it.”
At that she gave him a look, still plenty hostile, but tinged with curiosity.
This was the Cohort education had included the finest bards and minstrels of the empire.
“We were seduced by a story that could have been a children’s tale. A cave outside a small village, a treasure trove: a cache of gold.”
By law, every flake of gold belonged to the crown. Every last bit, no matter its form nor how it had come into being. And no matter who now held it.
Innel looked around at the seedlings, the fruit trees optimistically preparing for spring in this last part of winter, and let the moment lengthen. He acted as if he were struggling with what to say next.
“We could not afford to be wrong. You know what they’d say. The mutts. The fools. We had to find the absolute truth. And we did. But my brother…” he paused. “He wanted it for himself.”
“What, the gold?” She seemed incredulous at this.
“To sell it south, to wash it through Perripin traders.”
“But that would be treason.”
Sometimes it surprised him, how naive she could be.
“Yes, and I told him so. No, I said. He grew angry. Our loyalty to the crown, I said; nothing is more precious. He yelled at me, called me a fool, and when I would not budge, disowned me. And then…” A glance down, a ragged exhale. “You know the rest.”
She considered his words skeptically. She was almost there.
He inhaled slowly, audibly. “We grew up poor, My Lady Princess. Two years older, he remembered it far more clearly than I did. No House, no family — then the king’s generosity, to be sure, but nothing to call our own. Perhaps he sensed that his chances with you were waning and wanted something more substantial in hand.”
“What? We would never have turned him away. A company command, at least.”
Innel gave her a pained look. “You know how proud he was.”
“No, it is not possible.”
But it was not disbelief in her tone now. It was pain. Denial that someone she had known since childhood, someone she had cared for, could act this way.
And that meant she nearly believed him.
It was time for the final detail that weaves the parts of the story into a whole. He reached into his pocket, palmed a small, heavy item that Srel had bought for him from a south-end black market, a place it was barely safe to walk, let alone spend money. Srel, born to that side, had known what to do with the funds Innel had managed to scrape together. It had taken every quarter-nals Innel could lay hands on.