The Seer – Snippet 21
Outside Cern’s suite, Innel’s guards arrayed themselves alongside her royal guards with now-familiar ease. This time he was allowed inside the antechamber, where his Cohort sister sat on a plush settee, a pleated, black long-jacket across her lap.
“What did you bring me?” Sachare asked, not looking up.
She was passing the long seams through her extended fingers as if looking for something, which she probably was, and rolling and biting the buttons as if they might be poorly counterfeited coins.
“This,” he said, tired of being polite, throwing the wadded-up sweat cloth at her face. Without looking up, she batted it aside. “What shall I bring you next time, Sacha?”
“Trillium wine, boy.”
He snorted. Of course she would demand something impossibly rare and commensurately expensive.
“Something in season, girl. At least give me a chance –”
The inner door opened. Sachare stood quickly, jacket in hand. They both dipped their heads.
Cern gave them each a sharp glare, following it with a long, sour look at Innel.
The room was quiet for a long moment.
“Inside,” she said to him.
He followed with alacrity. He did not waste the chance, navigating every caress she allowed him, steering by the set of her shoulders, the cords in her neck, the sound of her breath, the scent at her nape. He missed the hours-long House meeting entirely.
She was, of course, tight and angry for quite some time. Only partly at him, he knew, but it didn’t matter — this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, and he applied himself entirely to it.
By the time they were done, she was a little more relaxed, and a touch less furious.
A good start.
The next morning, he came by again, and the following as well. She let him inside. He made a habit of showing up so she could get in the habit of saying yes, but left well before it might occur to her to wish him gone.
And he was missing important meetings.
So be it.
The looks he was now getting across the palace told him that word was getting around that he was back in Cern’s good graces.
The ladder goes up one rung at a time, Pohut would have said.
It was no time to get overconfident, though, so his every caress was planned, measured, carefully applied. Every look and laugh likewise, no matter how casual it might seem. He had to show Cern that he was strong in the ways she was secretly afraid she was weak, while at the same time avoiding any echo of her father’s mannerisms. Unless they were the ones she even more secretly admired.
A delicate game. A meticulous seduction.
In another tenday, she nodded a welcome to him at dinner.
Another rung up.
When at last Innel judged he would be likely to succeed, he politely asked if he might be allowed to sit next to her at dinner.
Her father looked on.
One night, sitting by her side at the end of a particularly long and well-attended meal that saw nearly all the remaining Cohort in attendance, the king casually opined that autumn was a good time for a wedding.
The room went dead silent.
Cern gazed down at her plate, eyes narrowed, lips thin, and said nothing.
Which was, it seemed, good enough for the king. The next morning, some twenty royal retainers poured into Innel’s apartment, took his measurements, made notes, and began planning what promised to be an astonishingly complicated and impressively expensive event.
But he would be wed.
To the princess.
A lifetime’s goal.
In even better news, Innel was allotted an allowance to assemble a staff. As tempted as he was to instead put the funds toward finding the girl in Botaros, he now had far too many eyes watching him, so he did as instructed; he took Nalas as his second, and after he made him steward put Srel in charge of settling all the rest.
At least now, Nalas would do as he was told and hit back.
“Are you satisfied with the help I obtained for you, Captain?”
The days had lengthened and warmed, so now Bolah prepared the bitter Arunkel tea that the season’s fashion demanded. She set a silver cylinder on the table between them along with two small matching goblets.
“Not yet, I’m not.”
Bolah froze, the etched cylinder clutched in her spotted hands.
“What has happened?”
“Nothing has happened,” Innel snapped, letting his annoyance show. “He searches but does not find. A glimpse; then the prey is loose again in the brush.”
“Ah,” she said, slowly completing her movement to fill his cup and then her own, setting the tea cylinder on the table. “Such things can take time.”
“I am out of time.” He took a sip, enjoying the tea, if not the conversation.
Bolah eased herself into the seat across from him and folded her hands together on the table. “Captain, if this man cannot obtain what you seek, it may be that the item cannot be acquired. Few, I assure you, are his equal.”
“So you have said.” Innel would venture a few inquires of his own, to see what others thought of Tayre’s work.
Bolah seemed ill at ease.
Good. Innel was on the path to become royal consort. She should want him happy.
“Could it be that the item you seek is occluded by some… unknown aspect? Thus… distant and difficult to see?”
So many words to describe magic, all to avoid being direct. Even here in the privacy of her own home.
But she might be right.
“Then perhaps someone with exceptionally good vision could help speed the search.”
Good vision. The euphemism for mages. Innel felt a little safer for sleeping in Cern’s bed, but until he was wed to her, even that could be swept away in any number of unforeseeable ways. It paid to be careful.
“Are any of them in-city?” he asked.
“My sources say one, perhaps two.”
“Are they…” He thought of how to put it. “Already on the gameboard?” Under contract to the king, he meant.
It was a dangerous conversation.
“One is, perhaps. But…” She considered her answer. “This is another level of expense entirely, Captain. Your credit will not stretch so far.”
“I have funds.”
Not long ago, his cohort brother Tok had run with him during his morning’s exercise and whispered to him that his mother, Etallan’s eparch, wanted to be sure that the king was not the only one who had someone with good vision close at hand.
Some thought House Etallan, with its fingers on mines across the empire, had too much influence. Etallan had done well at the last Charter Court. But Innel knew Tok, and trusted him as much as anyone. If House Etallan was backing him, that was good for him and it was good for Cern.
As for the actual mage, Innel had mixed feelings. He’d met a few, quietly, and found them not much different than some of the touchy Anandynar royals, expecting to be treated with great deference. With mages, respect first. It paid to handle them like blown glass.
But if Etallan was paying, then —
“Tell me when you find one.”
In spite of vivid tales intended to terrify Arunkel children, negotiating with mages was mostly a matter of tactful diplomacy. Offering them what they wanted, whatever it was. Even mages must eat.
“My honor to serve,” Bolah said, spreading her hands.
“Your sister,” Nalas said with a brief smile.
Innel made a face. “Yes, yes.”
Srel slowed his work at Innel’s elbow a moment, shot him a warning look.
“I know. It should only take a moment.”
Innel was almost late to attend the king in his bath. Srel had been intently sewing an elbow rip in Innel’s amardide and leather jacket, and while the jacket would come off immediately in the damp royal bath, Srel insisted it was essential that he look correct as he walked in.
Cahlen’s clothes, by contrast, were as far from acceptable as was possible to be without her being tossed out of the palace as a beggar. He sniffed a little. How often did she change them?
“The east tower dovecote,” she said.
“It’s been addressed. The Minister of Palace says –”
“He says many words. I’ve heard them all. Nothing changes. Nothing is fixed.”
She reached under her loose jacket and brought out a bundle.
“I will look into it when I can, Cahlen. But right now I’m a bit busy –”
She put the item on his side table and unwrapped it. One of her messenger birds, gray and white, blood across its feathers and head, beak splayed, long neck limp. Dead.