The Seer – Snippet 56
Innel plucked a dagger from the wall, hefted it to see how it balanced, waiting for Lason to object, which he did not. He put it down, walked the periphery of the room. “How old were you when you took this office?”
“Times were different then. She needs my expertise, now more than ever. No one trusts you, Innel.”
Innel closed fast on Lason, stopping short of arm’s reach. The other man took a startled step backward.
“Lason,” he said. “Your command is over. Step aside. Grow old in glory.”
“I’m not done.”
Innel glanced at the map on the desk. The northern expansion, some decades back. The one Innel’s father had given his life for.
“You most certainly are done. I’ll give you until this afternoon’s fifth bell to leave my offices.”
“The queen will see reason. I’ll go to her.”
“Don’t challenge me. If you do, it will be the last time.”
“It’s all been so easy for you, hasn’t it? Your rise to power. Just one long streak of good luck.”
Innel was startled at these words. That anyone could see him as fortunate, in any way, as though he had somehow stumbled his way to where he now stood, was beyond his comprehension.
Lason snorted. “And all because your father managed to get himself killed in battle in some clever way that the king noticed. I assure you being killed is not at all difficult, boy, and it doesn’t matter how clever you are about it, because you’re dead. Your father was clumsy.”
Innel fought a craving to slam the man to the ground. He was simply not sure, once he started such a thing, that he’d be able to stop.
Bad for appearances, Innel beating the old king’s brother. The queen’s uncle. It would look as if Cern had married and promoted a man with an unstable temper, and that would do them no good.
But it was tempting. Agonizingly so. He struggled to keep his hands at his side.
“You mutt,” Lason spat. “You’ll ruin Arunkel, piss on this glorious empire, shit all over everything we’ve built.”
One of the advantage of Restarn’s ways, Innel realized, was that this confrontation would never have taken place.
Innel walked to the door, unbolted it. “The fifth bell,” he repeated.
“I trained you, Innel. I know what you know. I’ve seen your mistakes, and I know every one of them. It’s disgusting, what you did. We lost one of our best when you slaughtered your brother. Pohut had good sense, and patience. But you –”
Innel shut the door behind him and wondered if Restarn’s methods might not have something to recommend them after all.
“What else?” Innel asked, keeping his voice low, despite that the two of them were alone in this small cellar room, vegetables and bags stacked high on shelves.
Innel had made sure Rutif was part of the team that delivered fruits and vegetables to the palace. The man had one leg shorter than the other and always stood lopsided, now splaying a hand to lean against the wall as he spoke.
A dockworker from childhood, until a crushing accident had taken most of his foot and ruined his knee, Rutif had a knack for getting people talking, and remembering what they had said, so Innel paid him to sit in the taverns and drink, which the man liked very much.
“Ser. Well –” Rutif drawled, rubbing his head in thought. “They liked the coronation parades. Especially the part with the sweet bread thrown from the carriages, the ones with the royal sigil baked in? They liked that very much.” He grinned, a gap-tooth smile.
That had been Innel’s idea, which the seneschal had not much cared for, muttering about propriety and expense.
“Tell them it was the queen’s idea. What else?”
“Yes, ser Commander. Let me think. Complaints from some of the captains.” Rutif scratched the back of his head, examined his fingers as if to see if anything had come off under his nails. “Since His Grace the old king’s been so sick, they haven’t been getting their full take. Don’t like it so much. Whining a lot.”
Full take? Innel needed to have a conversation with the finance minister. And a look at the ledgers. Perhaps the ledgers first. “Names?”
“Ahead of you there, Lord Commander,” Rutif said, handing Innel a folded piece of paper that was stained with what Innel hoped was only food.
“What else?” he asked.
“People saying how things are going to be better under the new queen. They say she looks like the Grandmother.”
She didn’t, not a bit, and anyone with a whole nals could see that, but it was a good rumor anyway. “I like that one; keep it going. Meet again next week. Now, you can get back to –” he waved at the stacks of vegetables.
“Oh, and there’s a young sergeant, got her drunk the other night, on about you and your brother. Something about a hard ride south a couple of years ago.”
At this, Innel froze. “Who?”
“Last name on the list, ser.”
Innel stepped to the edge of the large sunken tub where Cern bathed in steaming water. The royal bath was now Cern’s and the old king was bathed in his own rooms with a basin.
And yet here Innel was, almost as often as before. One of the ways in which she was very like her father. Which he would not say.
A slave boy knelt at the side of the tub, beginning to work a scented paste into Cern’s hair. When wet, Innel could see the hint of mahogany that was characteristic of the Anandynars. Like embers, he thought.
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty.”
Her mouth twitched at this coming from him, as though she could not quite decide how she felt about it. But Innel knew that his respect soothed her, and soothed she was more reasonable.
She stared out the window at the Houses and city spread below.
“Lason and I have spoken,” he said after a moment. “It wasn’t a friendly talk. He is refusing to leave my offices.”
“Ah. That explains why he demanded to speak to me today.”
“I am busy.”
Innel made a thoughtful sound, not sure if this was loyalty on her part, or avoidance. “Perhaps you should talk to him, my lady. You might persuade him that it is in his best interest to cooperate.”
Her shoulders twitched in a shrug that sent ripples across the tub. The blond slave lathering her arm paused, sponge in hand. “You take care of it, Innel.”
There was a fine line between her letting him make decisions, and appearing not to rule at all.
“I can hardly send him to survey the roads in the outer provinces, as your father would have done at this obstinacy, much as I might like to. He’s your uncle.”
Her mouth turned downward. “I will talk to him.”
Innel rubbed his chin, fingers still surprised at the naked skin there. Cern didn’t like beards, so now everyone shaved. Those who did not were watched closely, in the Yarpin style, by the many who did.
“I’ve been talking to some of the captains about the rails to the north,” he said. It had been a challenge to find any who would confide in him about what was going on out there.
The slave poured water slowly and carefully over Cern’s head. Innel could see the effort involved as the slave boy poured with great attention to avoid her eyes. It must have been especially challenging when she nodded, as she did now.
“Good,” she said, distracted.
“There’s widespread corruption. Transporting goods via rail, to and from the mining villages. Without House sanction or royal accommodation.”
A second slave was tilting a bowl into the bathwater of dried flowers and scented herbs. Cern raised two fingers, and the slave froze in mid-tilt. Two more leaves escaped, fluttering down to the water.
“I suppose this has been going on for a while?”
That there were black-market arrangements up and down the Great Road and throughout the city, they both knew. How many, and how far it went, how much it was costing the crown, they had not. To grab hold of it, they would have to unravel the tangled knots that made up Restarn’s web of unwritten arrangements.
“Yes. It will take a while to sort out.” Some knots were better sliced across, but Cern’s rule was yet too young to take such abrupt action.
“I have sufficient things to take my attention,” she said. “Kelerre wants us to pay for repairs to their port, did you know that?”