The Seer – Snippet 41
The first thing Innel did when he returned to the palace from Arteni was find a bath. Caked in dirt, blood, and the ever-present dust of Arteni’s grain mills, he stripped off his clothes and kicked them away from the tub, lowered his aching body into the hot and salted soaking water.
“Burn them,” he told Srel.
Srel made a sound intended to convey acquiescence but which Innel knew really wasn’t. Coming from deep poverty, Srel was incapable of disposing of anything that could possibly be reclaimed or repaired. But Innel wouldn’t see the clothes again, and that was enough.
As for Cern and her father, well, this time they could both wait. He would be clean and fed before he faced either of them.
“Is she still marrying me?” he asked Srel bluntly.
Another sound, this time thoughtful. “The wedding plans were put on hold when you left, ser.”
Disappointing but not unexpected. The campaign had taken the three months he’d anticipated and then some, but if the slog of dirt and blood, the tedious meetings and hurried executions had earned him a promotion, it would be worth it.
Colonel, most likely, he thought. General would be far better, of course, but it would be a stretch. Still, if the king wanted it for him and pushed, it was possible. He wondered what the other generals, decades his senior, born to the Houses or royals, would think of the king promoting him that far, that fast.
“She has shown no favor toward anyone else, ser.”
The other men of the Cohort were his only competition now. That she was seeing none of them was good news.
“And my reports to the king?” From the field, sent by Cahlen’s birds.
“I am told he read them very closely.”
Carefully written to achieve that very end. When the Cohort had been taught by minstrels and versifiers how best to fashion a story, Innel and his brother had paid keen attention. Thus Innel’s reports were more than factual; each started with a triumph, however minor, and ended with an uncertainty, the pattern intended to make the king eager to read the next dispatch describing how Innel sev Restarn was taking Arteni in the king’s name.
The people of Arteni had been astounded at the force that had been called down on them for attempting to sell grain outside their contract. They had at first presented some optimistic resistance that Innel crushed with heavily armored cavalry that crashed through the rusted iron gates. The line of millers and farmers, holding pitchforks and scythes, had broken fast. Those who had not run had died quickly.
Those who had run had also died, but more slowly.
After that it had been a matter of rounding up the troublemakers and giving them the choice between providing names and being hung with the next morning’s executions.
Innel made sure bread was passed out to the watching crowds to help them understand that they now ate by the king’s mercy.
What had taken the most time had been restructuring the town’s governance. The old council had stood firm in their insistence that this should be a negotiation rather than a surrender, finally retreating with their families into the mayor’s house, where Innel explained that they were wrong by burning it to the ground. The ashes didn’t argue.
His nights had been spent crafting these missives to flatter and intrigue the king, working in repetition to cover for the one or two in ten messenger birds that weather or predation would prevent returning home to the palace.
Cahlen had assured him that all these birds would return. Every last one of them. She had come to his rooms early the morning he had left, a cowed-looking assistant in tow carrying cages of noisy and annoyed birds.
“My best,” Cahlen had told Innel. “No hawks or bad weather will stop these.” Her eyes were bright and too wide. “Don’t put your hands on them. They bite.” Innel glanced at the assistant handler’s heavy leather gloves.
“They bite?” Before Cahlen, messenger birds were not known for their temper.
“Make sure you feed them,” she had said, her tone cross, as though he had already forgotten.
He took the soap Srel offered him, and began to scrub.
“What was the bird count?” he asked, dunking his head, feeling months of tension and dirt come off in the hot water.
He made a surprised sound. Cahlen had been right: every bird had returned. He must remember to tell her so. With luck, she would take it as a compliment.
When he toweled off, taking clean clothes from Srel, he asked: “Who should I see first?”
The smaller man dug into a pocket and held out something to Innel.
An earring. A magenta sapphire.
Cern it was, then.
“Took you long enough.” Her first words were softened a little by her hand on his face. She gathered his fingers in her own and drew him into her room. He hid his relief that she was glad to see him.
When, much later, she called for a plate of food and drink, the food came arrayed like a miniature garden, cheese and olives cleverly cut into the shape of flowers, and surrounded by hedges of herbed breads.
This, he realized, was wealth. Great wealth. Not the mere substance of the food, which was by itself rare and extraordinary, as befitted a princess, but the presentation itself. For a moment he simply stared at the miniature landscape so painstakingly prepared, laid across a lace-cut red ceramic platter that sat atop a table polished to a deep mahogany sheen. Around the edge of the table, inlaid in ebony and cherrywood, was the star, moon, pickax, and sword of the Anandynar sigil.
“The earring is a nice touch,” she said to him with a wry half-smile.
The irony of this struck him; the sapphire in his ear was worth a tiny fraction of what was arrayed before him, but it was his gesture that mattered to her.
I thought of you every moment I was away.
No, she wouldn’t like that. Something more pragmatic.
He smiled. “Let no one wonder where my loyalty lies.”
To his surprise, rather than be pleased, as he had expected, her gaze swept away across the room, her half-smile gone. A spike of anxiety went through him.
“What excitement have I missed?” he asked lightly, pretending not to have noticed her ill ease.
Her lengthening silence did nothing to reassure him. She was, he realized, trying to figure out how to tell him something.
That by itself was impressive: the heir-apparent to the Arunkel throne was struggling with how to say something to him, the mutt. Flattering, to be sure, but it could not mean good news. He watched closely as she put on a grimace that meant she felt she had no choice.
And that meant it was about her father.
Dread slowly trickled down his spine. She could certainly take him to bed for entertainment and marry someone else if she chose. Had he been cast aside, after all? What had happened while he had been away?
She glanced at him, and he gave her yet another easy smile, the work of years of practice, hoping to calm her. Or himself.
At last she cleared her throat and gave a forced laugh. “How would you like to be the lord commander?”
Lord commander? The highest rank in the military?
“Of the Host of Arunkel?” he asked, incredulous, his careful presentation of equanimity swept away.
“Yes,” she said, tone suddenly dry, “that would be the one.”
Could the king have decided to elevate him that far, that fast? Surely it was not possible.
But then, perhaps it was.
He could not suppress a smile of elation. “How would I like it?” He asked. “It…”
This was as far from bad news as possible, to be made the commander of the empire’s armies. It made sense, now that he thought about it; coming as he did from outside the palace and far below the Houses, Innel could well imagine Restarn deciding such a rank would appropriately elevate him to marry his daughter.