The Seer – Snippet 57
“I had heard something about it, yes.”
In truth, he had been up late the night before, studying years’ worth of correspondence and trade agreements between the crown and the nominally Perripin city of Kelerre.
“The ministers demand I approve everything. Perripin trade agreements, currency exchange contracts, shipping schedules…” She trailed off, raising and lowering a foot, making small waves against the side of the tub. “Surely you can take care of this.”
“Yes, of course, my lady.”
The slave rinsed Cern’s hair, and the other dried her head. It seemed a good time to leave, now that they had reached an accord of sorts. Perhaps the other subject could wait. He could do what he needed to do without telling her at all, but if it came to light and she did not know —
“However,” he said, sitting by the edge of the tub, “to find the corruption and fix it, I must hire someone with… exceptionally good vision.”
She knocked the boy’s hands away from her head. “Out. All of you.” Slaves, servants, guards — all but Innel left the room at a near run. She gave him a look. “You can’t mean what I think you mean.”
“We do not do this.”
Innel knew how far from the truth this was, and again wondered how she could know so little about how her father conducted business.
“That is not quite the case,” he said mildly. “What we face is beyond simple graft and chit-bribes. Our soldiers are soliciting coin from towns to ignore taxation and Charter violations. The crown is losing revenue. And reputation.”
“So root out the corrupt ones and send them to Execution Square.” She waved a hand. “You are now in charge of executions. Make it right, Innel.”
“Cern, we need –”
“The laws exist for good reason.”
He motioned to the wide expanse of window. “Do you really think House Glass made this? You promoted me to Lord Commander because you trust me to do the necessary work. This is necessary.”
“You’ve seen the Shentarat plains, Innel. A wasteland. Nothing lives there now. Magic did that.”
“A mage did that. Magic does not act by itself.”
“They bring death.”
“The same can be said of our army.”
“They are like raccoons. Once they learn you will feed them, you can’t get rid of them.”
She had no idea how hard they truly were to come by, nor did he plan to tell her. “They sell their services like any merchant. Even mages need to eat.”
“They bring ill-fortune. Stone that rots, babies born dead, the melting plague.”
If he were to be more than Cern’s consort, he must be able to hold his own with her. He took a deliberate, insulting tone. “Is that what your father told you?”
Her lips thinned, edges down. She looked away a moment, silent and angry. For a long moment her expression did not change, and Innel wondered if his rise to power might have found its ceiling.
“No mages, Innel.”
Innel clenched his fist, tapped it lightly to the tile at his feet, and considered. He had worked hard for her throne, perhaps harder than she had. He knew he needed her; without her he was only a mutt, rising above his station. Perhaps she needed him, too, or perhaps she could do without him if she must.
Most important was what she believed. It was time to find out.
He shifted onto his knees then touched his head on the tile toward her, then did it twice more.
“Your Majesty,” he said, “I will need you to scribe your commands for me, so that I miss none of them.”
“What? Get up.”
“A list of what I may and may not do,” he said, head still down.
She snorted. “No mages, Innel. Do whatever else you like.”
“Next week, my lady,” he said, lifting his head and meeting her gaze, “it will be no mages and no elk-horn buttons. The week after perhaps no horses with spotted manes. Then — no yellow flowers. After that –”
“You mock my laws.”
“Your father’s laws. Perhaps you should put me in charge of the kitchens instead of the army.”
“You are starting to annoy me.”
If he annoyed her enough, she could divorce him. Quite easily, as her seneschal had pointed out. Or she could have him sent to the towers without fingers, as her grandmother had done with one of her consorts who had presumed too much.
If she were truly vexed, she could have him torn to pieces in Execution Square, relieving him of his oversight of that particular job. That would be an irony many would appreciate.
He was betting she was too smart for that. Betting rather a lot.
“Then, my lady,” he said with a calmness he didn’t feel, “give the job to someone else. Someone you trust to make such decisions.”
“No mages,” she said, slowly, forcefully.
“I’m sure Lason would take back his command if you offered it to him.”
“Cold crack your balls.” She slammed her hand against the side of the tub. “Do as I say.”
Their gazes locked.
“I am your queen.”
“Without question, ma’am.”
“You will obey me.”
“You’ve given me conflicting orders.”
“No mages. Isn’t that simple enough?”
She was not yielding. Don’t push until you must. And then go in with all you have.
“Perhaps you should break the marriage, my queen.”
A step too far, he judged from her sudden change of expression. She was furious now, eyes wide, fists tight.
Innel suppressed a wince; worse yet would be to retreat. So with effort, he stayed silent, letting his last words echo.
“I’ll have you in charge of the kitchens first,” she said at last.
“I am reassured,” he said, dryly, to hide how reassured he really was. He sat back on the tiles, letting himself softly exhale. “The Houses use mages, Cern. We must have at least the advantages they do.”
She gritted her teeth, splashed the water a little. “Be sure your hire is a citizen of the empire. One who pays taxes.”
Unlikely, given the laws about practicing magic.
But, he realized, she had just said yes.
“I thought it prudent to find one from outside Yarpin, outside Arunkel. Someone without obligations or ties here.”
Her expression bordered on the incredulous. “You have already done this thing.”
He hesitated, then wished he hadn’t. “Yes.”
“You broke the laws.”
“Your father’s laws, which he himself broke regularly. Your laws now, my queen.”
“When did you –” She broke off, stared at him with hard, green eyes. “How long have you been planning this?”
He wondered what answer would pacify her most, decided to risk the truth. “A year and some, my lady.”
To his surprise, she smiled. “When my father still ruled. You planned ahead, for me. I like that.” Then the smile turned brittle. “But don’t hide things from me. If there’s a mage in my palace, I want to know about it. No secrets from me, Innel, the way you did with him.”
Cern moved through the water to come close to him at the edge of the tub, then reached up and grabbed the back of his head with her wet hand, slowly pulling him close. She kissed him for long moments.
This he had not expected. For a fair number of moments afterward she continued to surprise him.
When Innel returned at the fifth bell, Lason left, finally and gracelessly, storming out of the office along with an entourage of his remaining loyal retainers. They left with the best of the old king’s travel set. “Stole” might be the more accurate word, but it was unclear what the legal status of the king’s royal horses was now that Cern was queen. From there the group had headed north, Innel was told, but to where no one knew.
It had better not be to cause trouble at the mines. He instructed Srel to send word to his people there to report back anything that sounded like Lason’s work.
Finally the Lord Commander’s office was Innel’s.
He signaled Srel, who gestured to the many servants who were unpacking his things onto the mantles, making the final touches Innel wanted — new maps on the walls, weapons on racks so they were more accessible than ornamental — to stop. They streamed out the door, leaving only the young, uniformed woman who had just arrived, who stood arrow-straight, staring at nothing.
When the two of them were alone, he spoke. “Identify yourself.”
“Vevan sev Arunkel, Lord Commander.”