The Seer – Snippet 43
“Pigs’ ass,” Mulack said loudly, grinning. In another context this insult was one Mulack was likely to use, but now he referred to the back end room at the Boar and Bull, an innocuous mid-city tavern that the Cohort sometimes used when they wanted to be away from palace eyes and ears.
“I’ll see if I can clear my evening plans,” Innel said, turning away, already knowing he would. Srel would let Sachare know so that she could handle Cern should the subject of Innel’s whereabouts arise.
Cern, the entire reason for the Cohort’s existence.
Technically she was a member as well, but Innel was sure Mulack would not be inviting the princess to the pig’s ass.
“Too many times,” Taba was saying, laughing loudly. She was a broad-shouldered woman and had been so even in her teens. Her eyes were a light green, the color of the seas she had made her home, and matching the shirt she wore. A red and black surcoat marked her as belonging to the king’s navy, but under that she wore Helata’s colors, green and blue. A long tradition, that, the navy showing House colors so openly. No one in the army would dare.
Mulack was grinning as Sutarnan poured more of the strong black wine into his cup. Dil leaned back in his chair. Tok nodded slowly at Taba’s story.
It had been some time since the Cohort had gathered, even this small a number.
The last time, all the other times, his brother had been there.
Keep a watch, Innel, Pohut might have said. Stay sober.
He intended to.
Around the table was a scattering of plates of food and mugs and glass goblets. A ceramic tumbler meant it was harder to track what had been drunk and what still remained. A clear goblet gave the appearance of not hiding anything.
Everyone was drinking. Everyone had multiple cups in front of them.
It was an old game, one they had played through the years to see who could be made to slip up while tempted by various intoxicants. Across the years they had tried every substance the wealthy boys and girls of the Cohort could get their hands on.
“Incompetence in a harbormaster is inexcusable,” Mulack said from across the table, now on his third glass.
Sutarnan, who was still sipping from his first tumbler, made a disparaging sound. “Harbormasters are set for life, you know that. Supposed to keep them honest, that appointment.”
“They’re perfectly honest if you bribe them,” said Tok with a straight face, at which Sutarnan snorted.
“Truss them and toss them off the pier! Problem solved!” Mulack said loudly, downing the rest of his glass and holding it out to Sutarnan for more. Mulack was slurring slightly, but that was one of his tricks, to pretend that he was drunker than he really was, to see what he could get away with. Sometimes he walked the line too closely.
A long, loud sigh from Taba. “If only.”
“Taba, surely your eparch will listen to you.” This from Dil, many steps removed from the eparchy of House Kincel but who made no secret of being perfectly happy behind the scenes, making sure his House of Stone had every connection to the palace it needed. Dressed mostly in reds and blacks, Dil was clearly planning to stay at the palace. Innel suspected he was lobbying to be Kincel’s liaison.
“If only,” Taba said again, laughing again.
“No one listens to us,” Sutarnan complained. “You’d think they would, what with all the royal education our heads are fat with, but no.”
“No one listens to you, you mean, and that’s because you won’t decide which house you belong to. Or have you finally made up your mind?” This from Tok.
Two Houses claimed Sutarnan. He was the son of a brief union between Sartor’s and Elupene’s eparchs, an unusual liaison, which — more unusually yet — the king approved. Restarn might have been distracted at the time by the second battle of Uled, some handful of years after Innel’s father had died in the first, but whatever the reasons, Sutarnan’s parents had stayed together long enough to produce him and then, after an impressive two-year-long fight during which time no armor was made in the city, managed to get a royal divorce.
“I have no plans to select one over the other. Two is better than one.” He smiled widely, then his eyes settled on Innel and the smile vanished. Innel, who had no House at all.
Which would not matter, Innel reminded himself, as soon as he married Cern.
“You really should taste this, Innel,” Dil said quickly, before the awkward moment had a chance to lengthen, pushing a small crystal bottle around the large table toward him. Taba passed it along to Tok, who, with a lopsided grin, handed it to Innel.
The room fell silent, everyone watching him expectantly.
A strange moment, this. It wasn’t long ago that none of them would much care what he thought of the wine. Or anything else.
It was hard to forget years of Cohort hostilities, schemes, broken bones, and broken agreements. Harder yet to forgive. He had one friend in all those years, one person to trust at his back. That trust, too, had been foolishly placed.
But now, fed and wined, it was evident even these last holdouts of the Cohort realized how things had changed. No one at this table would benefit from bad will with the princess consort. They needed Innel.
Of course, he needed them, too.
It was time to rewrite history.
“We are all brothers and sisters here,” he said, hands wide, smiling at them, putting as much joviality and warmth into his expression as he could stomach. He let his gaze come to rest on Mulack, arguably the most dangerous of the lot, and gave him the warmest smile of all, to which Mulack snorted in amusement.
With a nod of appreciation to Dil, Innel took a swig from the delicate bottle he’d been handed, not bothering with a cup. A deep, smokey concoction met his tongue and fairly danced down his throat. It was superb, and no doubt older than he was. Indeed, he would bet that every sip cost more than his boots.
He took another.
“You have the princess now,” Dil said, stating the obvious, with what appeared to be a genuine smile. Dil was good with the charm. Almost as good as Pohut had been.
“To your pending marriage,” Tok said, raising his tumbler to Innel.
Everyone did likewise, Taba making a thoughtful sound as she reached behind to the side table and selected another bottle, filling the cups of those who held theirs to her, putting some splashes in the rest, making the math more difficult. Not an accident.
“And how did he manage that?” Mulack asked no one in particular. “We all had the same damned anknapa. Why isn’t Cern in my bed?”
“Because you’re clumsy,” Taba said, who no doubt had first-hand knowledge. The Cohort had done a lot of practicing.
“There was some actual study involved,” Tok added. “Not something you really cared for, as I recall, Mulack.”
“I studied plenty!” he said, sputtering drunkenly. “The anknapa, she had a — ” He made a flopping gesture with one hand that caused everyone to laugh.
Study Cern, Innel thought, but didn’t say.
“A toast,” said Tok, motioning to Innel. “To the hero of Arteni. To whom we owe the very bread in our mouths.”
“Huzzah!” said Taba. They all drank.
“I hear the king was pleased with your efforts in Arteni, Innel,” said Tok.
Innel gave an affirming nod, despite that there had been no discussion with the king about the campaign at all. Which, he supposed, could well be taken as royal approval. The wedding was going ahead, and that was all the approval he really needed.
“To our beloved princess,” said Tok, raising his glass.
Soon to be queen, Innel thought. But no one would say that. Not quite yet. It was too close to questioning the king’s will.
“To the heir!” said Sutarnan with enough enthusiasm that he sloshed red wine across the table. A trick to help empty his glass? A distraction? An honest, drunken slip?
Did any of them make honest slips anymore?
“Oh, we’re not out of drink now, are we?” asked Mulack with a pout as he looked deep into his empty clear goblet.