The Seer – Snippet 05

It didn’t matter how many sewer pipes were installed down-city if the Houses on the hill consumed every drop for their baths and flower gardens. The palace was no better, with glassed-in gardens and soaking tubs.

The stench did not distinguish between common and noble noses; everyone gagged on entrance. Wealthy merchants, foreign dignitaries. The Houses and the king should have been embarrassed, but they simply ignored it. As soon as he and his brother gained some measure of authority, they would do something about it.

His brother.

He could still reverse direction, find a country far away, his actions this last ten-day left unknown.

Along with everything else he had labored to accomplish. A ragged mutt with nothing. Common in the truest sense.

No. He was not ready to give up.

Around him, tradesmen and clerks were rushing out into the dim light of the streets to start their day, stumbling out of his way, then staring. He had thought to attract less attention by seeming to be a trader going up-city to deliver a rolled tapestry, his soldier’s uniform hidden under loose clothing and cloak, but it was now obvious to him that a body didn’t hang over a horse’s shoulders the way a tapestry would. A lesson that, oddly, none of his tutors had provided.

In doorways, rags moved, becoming scrawny children who scrambled to their feet and called out to him, promising everything from the impossible to the unlikely. One small boy pulled off his shirt, shivering in the morning chill, rubbing his tiny chest, describing in detail what he was offering. All, he assured in his high-pitched child’s voice, for only three nals. Less, the boy cried out, as Innel passed him by.

A girl stood on the street reciting the names of tinctures at prices far too inexpensive to be sanctioned. There was something not quite right about her expression and distant stare that put him in mind of his sister, Cahlen. Would his sister and mother survive this day, if he did not? It seemed to Innel that he should care, one way or the other, but he was not sure he did.

The king’s laws were supposed to prevent children from shielding blackmarket outlaws by setting the same penalties for the young as for those who hired them, yet it was still children calling from doorways, filling the prisons, and being sold to slavers when it was clear that no one was coming to pay their fine.

There was an upside, of sorts, he supposed; Innel had studied the empire’s books and knew how much of the crown’s income could be attributed to the sale of those barely old enough to count on their fingers let alone make binding contracts. The king’s accountants were fond of joking that children were one of Yarpin’s most lucrative exports.

Except that it was true. Those backing these urchins could afford to bribe whomever they needed to. The city was soaked in such dealings, from the slums to the Great Houses. So many palms to which coin could stick.

And that was where the money went, on its way to clean the city, or to repair streets and water pipes. Another thing he and his brother would remedy when they —

Again he looked at the body in front of him.

A crow flew across the horse’s path, squawking loudly, and Innel tensed, momentarily gripping the reins. The mare stopped, and he pressed her forward again.

The scent of baking bread caught his attention, making him realize how hungry he was. Absurdly he imagined stopping for rolls and herbed butter while the challenge before him simply waited until he felt like it.

Maybe someone would steal the body from his horse while he lingered, enjoying the bustle of the morning around him.

But it was just imagination, and he did not stop.

As his horse climbed the steep hill, the foul air cleared, replaced by briny ocean breezes. The Lesser Houses rose high and wide on either side of the street. Finch and Chandler, Glass and Bell, their familial sigils worked into patterns of trim, mosaic, groundstone, the dual-color flags of their patron houses flying high and bright in the rising sun.

In this prestigious neighborhood, House patrols kept beggars and other lurkers away. One patrol watched now, not recognizing Innel as one of the Cohort. The man looked him over; the fine black horse, anonymous cloak, body across the saddle. He appeared to weigh the evidence, then nodded a little and turned away.

From the palace, deep bells chimed the hour of dawn. Perhaps he should have arrived at midnight instead of at the start of the day, which he now realized would mean far more eyes on him.

No, there was no good time to arrive with this package.

At the summit, the street opened into a huge square at the center of which was a sizable fountain. Water poured from the mouths of a hundred carved marble flowers into the open beaks of a hundred carved birds standing on rocks in the pool below.

An apt model of the convoluted House Charters, he had always thought, the many streams of water — some parallel in effort, some at cross-purposes — that assigned contracts and Lesser Houses to the Great Houses. Few could make sense of all the relationships involved, even among the Cohort, even though most of them hailed from the Houses. He and his brother, though, they —

He veered from the thought.

The side streets were lavish with rows of trees and gardens fronting the gated compounds of the Eight Great Houses, each painted and jeweled in its two-tone colors, the roof lines sparking brilliant in the sun’s first rays.

And then the palace walls, beyond which was the Jewel of the Empire, dwarfing even the Great Houses with its size, stonework, and high towers, pink and alabaster stones sun-touched and glinting. The Cohort had sometimes been tutored in those towers, using the view of the ocean and surrounding forests to discuss the crown’s history and economics, but most tower rooms were reserved as lodging for inconvenient royals, like the king’s mother, whom no one ever saw. Housing for those the king didn’t want to see but whose missteps weren’t egregious enough for execution.

Not the worst outcome, he supposed.

No, he thought. He wasn’t important enough. A mutt did not rot in the towers.

At the gate, his mare strained forward toward the promise of food, trotting to the front of the long line waiting for entrance, staring at him intently, as were the guards and bowmen two levels overhead on the parapet wall. He was recognized and waved through. One guard nodded sharply at another, who took off at speed.

Well, at least his welcome would not be overly delayed.

At the stables he dismounted. Stablehands took the reins, reached for the body.

“No,” he said sharply. “Leave it.”

With stiff fingers from the long ride and cold morning, untying the knots took frustratingly longer, but he would accept no help. He pulled the long bundle off the horse and onto his own shoulders, holding the legs and arms of the now-rigid body out to either side.

His mare was led away. Tired and hungry, but no worse for the journey.

Unlike his brother.

He met the widening eyes of stablehands. That he and his brother had left within hours of each other, very much without permission, was no secret from them. In their looks he saw them draw conclusions, step back.

Afraid. Of him. Of what he carried. Of what it meant.

A young woman rushed to the doors ahead of him. At a glance he took in the balance of her loyalty to the crown versus her allegiance to her House; dressed in the monarchy’s red and black, only the yellow trim on her boots and cuffs marked her as a child of House Elupene. She yanked open both doors, dropped back and away.

Belatedly it occurred to him that it would have been prudent to have taken off his cloak to reveal his own red and black. To do so now would mean putting his brother down. He would not.

As he walked the path from stables to the palace’s back entrance, he passed faces he knew. A green-and-cream-liveried servant. A pair of red-uniformed soldiers. A cook. A triad of scribes. All backed away, gazes flickering from his face to what he carried.

Srel, out of breath, dashed to his side.

“Ser, what. Ah –”

The smaller man fell suddenly quiet, his gaze solidly on Innel’s burden.

Innel and his brother had rescued Srel from the streets many years ago, when he’d been a scrawny, starving teen, and Srel had given them his stubborn loyalty since.

“What –” Srel began again.

“Talk later,” Innel managed. He wondered if Srel’s loyalty would survive the day.

Irrelevant, though, if he himself did not.

The door of the palace side entrance opened inward. He climbed the steps. Scullery and laundry servants stared, gape-mouthed, hastily retreating back into doorways to make room.

Innel considered the various routes through the many-floored structure that would get him to the royal wing where the king might see him.

Or might not. Might have him arrested and thrown in the dungeon to await judgment. Might have him tossed into commoners’ jail down-city.