The Seer – Snippet 04
Bound in word and blood.
The monarchy’s motto, and a part of Innel’s long oath to the king. He looked at his brother’s body in front of him, wrapped in burlap, laid across the shoulders of his mare, and wondered if he had now broken that oath.
He turned his horse from the road following along the thundering Sennant River to one that steeply ascended into the mountains. The horse snorted her incredulity at leaving the well-maintained, flat road but went where Innel directed. She was a splendidly well-trained creature with a glossy coal-black coat that he had taken in the middle of the night for the hard ride south to Botaros. Without permission. From the king’s own travel set.
One more thing to answer for.
Her ears flattened again. She did not like the bundle she carried, wrapped in what Innel could find that dark, cold night. Did not like it at all.
Nor did he.
A confrontation, yes. Sharp words, even, given the circumstances. That he might have expected.
His mare slowed on the steep incline, stepping delicately over a fallen log. He pushed aside the desire to rush her. He wanted to be done with this, but there was no room for mistakes; she was not only carrying him and provisions, but a body.
Not a small body, either. Pohut had been a large man, powerful and fast. Had the fight been fair, Innel would have been a fool to bet on himself.
Yet he had won, the body before him testimony to that. His brother and he, resolved at last.
A cold autumn wind gusted across his face.
No, nothing like resolved.
Hours later the road leveled somewhat, weaving among the pines and patches of ice like a skein of silvered yarn, sometimes following along the roaring river far below, sometimes cutting inland, sometimes so overgrown it was scarcely more than a game trail. Once he and the horse disagreed on where the road was, and only after they had to backtrack from a dead end at an overhang that dropped to the white frothing water below did he defer to her when he wasn’t sure.
The long way back to the capital, this detour from the main road, and that only to avoid the small risk of being stopped and asked what he was carrying. Growing up in the Cohort had taught him that sometimes there was a hair’s width between triumph and disaster. As always, a balance of risks.
Like arriving at Botaros minutes before his brother did, finding there a child who could truly see into the future, and taking her advice.
A ten-day ago, he would have dismissed the rumor of a seer as a children’s fable, a ruse to some end. To find that his brother, supposedly aboard ship far south in the Mundaran Sea, had returned and was now en route to Botaros on a fast horse, had quickly decided him.
Deceit and treachery from anyone else, even Cohort siblings, he had come to expect. But Pohut?
So Innel had followed his brother. Hard riding, lack of sleep, and blinding fury at Pohut’s most recent betrayal had put Innel there first. By a hair’s width.
He went over the conversation in his mind, every word, how the girl had held herself. No deception that he could read, and she had known things she simply could not know. Now that he had time to reflect, he realized he should have gotten more answers, starting with what would have happened if his brother had arrived first.
No. He knew that answer.
He looked at the body in front of him again.
First he must return to the capital and find out how much trouble he was in. Then he would come back for the girl.
Innel stopped in the middle of a circle of alders and dismounted, tugging out the knots that kept the long bundle on his mount, easing his brother’s body down onto frozen mud.
The mare’s large brown eye met his in what might have been gratitude but was more likely a rebuke for putting her through this.
They had left the distant roar of the Sennant far behind. Other than muted birdsong and wind through high trees, the silence of the woods was thick and heavy. Such a contrast to Yarpin Palace, where every word, spoken or not, was loud with implication. Where the length of a shirt sleeve could spark backroom discussions and questions about one’s loyalty.
Where he would need to arrive with a very compelling story about what he had done.
They were a royal investment, the girls and boys of the Cohort, the result of decades of tutelage and housing. Innel was going to need to explain why he was bringing one of them back dead.
Ironically, he wanted his brother’s advice more than ever. What would Pohut have said now?
“You are the aggrieved party,” he might have said. “With no opposing voice, the king will believe you. If you believe you.”
“But what do I say?” Innel mouthed to the cold quiet around him.
“Sleep on it. You’ll think more clearly tomorrow. You always do.”
But tomorrow his brother would still be dead.
He stumbled away into the brush, hand against a tree, and leaned over to put onto the ground what little remained in his stomach. He heaved again and again.
His brother. He had killed his brother.
After a time he stood, wiped his mouth, and looked around at this too-quiet forest, dim and gray-green under frigid, flat white skies.
The past was done. Writ in blood and carved in stone. Unchangeable. No sense in dwelling on it.
He drank water and opened a bag of grain to hand-feed his mare, focusing on this simple act and nothing else; the feel of her lips on his palm, the sound of her grinding molars.
Just a package to deliver, he told himself, struggling the heavy thing off the ground and up and onto his shoulders and then across the horse, tying it securely. She snorted resentment, breath white like smoke in the chill air. As he swung up into the saddle, he resolved to have the stablehands overfeed her on their return.
A very, very compelling story.
The mutts, they had been called, from their first day in the Cohort. Together they had studied fiercely, the unspoken rules of palace life, the patterns of war, the moods of the princess. Together they had outthought, outfought, and outcourted the rest of the Cohort.
Together. Always together.
Perhaps it would be simpler for him to return to Yarpin without the body. Say he had not seen Pohut at all.
Or perhaps that his brother had cursed him and the king as well and headed for lands south, now both a traitor and a deserter.
“On a ship, Sire,” Innel mouthed, to see how the words would sound. “Ashamed to face you after drawing his knife on me.”
But no — uncertainty about Pohut’s fate led to doubt about Innel’s story, and there would be enough of that. The body had to come back with him, along with Pohut’s knife. The knife he had indeed drawn on Innel but had never had a chance to use.
Because of the girl’s prediction.
Or he, Innel, could go elsewhere. Leave the empire entirely. Find some remote place to call home. A self-exile.
He could not stomach that either. They had worked too hard, too long. Year by year, spending what little influence they had being so close to the throne, grooming contacts, building loyalties. The two of them had been generous with favors but miserly in trust; raised in the Cohort among royals and scions of the Greater and Lesser Houses, he and Pohut had long ago realized they had only one true ally.
Since he could remember, the trust between them had seemed unshakable. But it was not; these last few years, it had eroded.
The king had told him, in words he could not mistake for anything else, that there was no longer room at the palace for the both of them.
And then his brother had betrayed him.
Now there was plenty of room.
“Damn you,” he said to his brother.
There was a saying in the palace that blood speaks with one voice. It meant that what the aristo families shared was stronger than what divided them. This was why the king bred dogs and horses. It was why, when Innel’s father had died a general and hero of the king’s northern expansion, their mother and her three children were taken to the palace and inducted into the Cohort.
Breeding mattered. In dogs, in horses. In children.
As he stared at the bundle that was his brother’s body, he could Pohut’s his face and hear his voice.
Blood spoke, all right. He just didn’t much like what it was saying.
Innel arrived in Yarpin at the first hint of dawn’s light, gray stone streets and tall brick buildings engulfed in pools of shadow under fast-fading stars. The mare picked up her pace, eager to get home.
Or perhaps she was trying to escape the stink. Even autumn-chilled, the stench of trash against the wall and the sewers were a foe no arms could subdue, a pungent insult to the nose that overshadowed even the nagging scent of his brother’s body.