The Seer – Snippet 06

Might have him questioned to find out what had really happened. Innel had witnessed a number of the king’s interrogations over the years and had finally come to realize what should have been obvious all along: the king didn’t torture people to get answers, but to make sure that those watching knew how willing he was to do so.

Palace life was all about who saw what, and certainly the fewer who saw him and his burden today, the better. With that thought, he took the servant’s staircase up to the next floor. A tight fit in places, so he turned sideways.

As he walked another corridor, he realized it wasn’t just his brother’s body that stank, and wondered at the wisdom of seeing the king before cleaning up.

No. Worse to delay.

Again, his mind raced over what the king might do, the legalities involved. Innel had just killed a man directly sworn to the monarch, making Innel’s actions closer to treason than mere murder. That he was similarly sworn might prove irrelevant.

Innel could end up at the northern end of the Dalgo Rift, counting the king’s distant flocks of sheep and goats, lucky to still be in possession of all his limbs.

He shuffled forward over smooth marble floors, adjusting the balance of the heavy weight on his shoulders. This time of day, the palace ought to be bustling with servants and retainers, children of Houses and tutors rushing to make appointments. He might have a nod or a smile from a guard or aide. A moment’s conversation about matters of the day. A Cohort sibling might have words for him, plans for a game of two-head later. Whispered politics. Favors offered, demanded, bargained for.

None of that now. Everyone was clearing the way before him, watching as if he were being paraded to Execution Square, another not-inconceivable consequence. With no House to back him, carrying a dead man on his shoulders whose identity anyone could make a reasonable guess about, despite — or possibly because of — his membership in the Cohort, he could think of no precedent.

He was contagious with implication, and no one would come near him until someone told them what they should think. That someone could only be the king.

Passing the eating hall by the kitchens where the Cohort had often taken informal meals with the king, he wondered if he would see the inside of it again. If he had eaten his last meal.

Once he and his brother, not much older than thirteen and fifteen, had arrived in just this spot, late for the meal, which would earn them a reprimand from the headmaster. They had needed the time to clean up. Even so, their faces were thick with purpled bruises from the beating that five of the Cohort had given them after luring them into a deserted basement hallway.

Pohut had taken Innel’s already bruised arm in a hard grip, holding him back a moment from entering the room.

“You look like a whipped dog,” he hissed.

“A good description of us both,” Innel whispered back.

Pohut pulled him closer, speaking into his ear. “Act like it and you become it.”

“Brother, we have nothing. No House, no bloodline, no patron –”

Another shake for his attention. Innel gritted his teeth at the pain, but Pohut’s charming smile somehow gentled it, melting his anger. It was a trick that had opened many doors for his older brother.

“No House means we are freer, Innel. Lighter. A fast freighter. A pointed dirk. Beholden only to the king. We do what others cannot, say what aristos dare not. We’ll win this.”

This. Meaning Cern. The reason for the Cohort.

Innel had snorted in reply. “Your eye is purple and yellow, your toe broken. I think my forearm bone is cracked. We should tell the king.”

“Say nothing.

“But –”

“Five on two. What does that tell you, about how they fear us? Think, brother. Think.”

Innel tilted his head and considered. “That they do.”

“How many of the Cohort has the king sent home, to the dishonor of their Houses, while we two remain? One of us will be consort; believe it. We will survive.”

Survive they had, and more than that. Pohut was right: they could move and act more quickly than those with somewhere to retreat to if they failed.

Innel had never asked his brother which of the two of them he believed Cern would choose. Until last year it had been enough that it would be one of them.

The next time that those five Cohort brothers had found Innel and Pohut in that same deserted cellar hall, the brothers had been ready. They had put their attackers on the ground, leaving them there with broken bones, bloodied and bruised. One had a piercing headache that did not go away. A month later he was returned to his House.

No one tried it again.

Every year someone left or fell out of the Cohort. In one case, literally: a rooftop duel led to one boy tumbling to his death on the stone courtyard three stories below. The survivor of that duel had been sent back to his House, not because of the death, but because otherwise the two Houses would be at each other’s throats, threatening to snuff lamp oil deliveries to the entire city. Home the boy went.

By Innel’s eighteenth spring, the Cohort had dwindled to eight boys and three girls. Then Innel and Pohut were separated, sent on campaign, assigned to serve various province governors, or kept close to serve in the palace.

But not together.

Innel sent Pohut letters by messenger bird, but his brother’s replies were terse, demanding, critical. They saw less and less of each other, then not at all. Until Botaros.

A child’s screaming laughter brought him back to the moment. A naked toddler had run in front of him and frozen, forcing him to a heavy stop to avoid plowing the boy over. The boy gaped up at him, then grinned widely, drooling with pleasure, as if nothing could delight him more than this large, grimy man, a dead body slung across his shoulders.

Out into the hall dashed a head-wrapped green-liveried servant who snatched the child up into her arms and stammered apologies, darting back into a doorway. The child’s howl was muffled by a slammed door.

Innel struggled forward, keeping his expression as composed as he knew how. A colorful array of servants, clerks, and aristos in their House dual-tones stepped quickly out of doorways to line the walls to watch him go. Though it was usually a loud time of day, all he heard were his own footsteps.

Meat and bread and cheese, he thought, with sudden craving. A drink of something to clear the nasty taste from his mouth. A carafe of wine to clear the unpleasantness of his thoughts.

His brother’s counsel.

A large, stocky figure stepped solidly in front of him, one foot and then the other, the high collar of the man’s pressed red and black sharp against his doughy neck, gold trim on his neckline and down his arms catching the morning light from high windows.

“By the Eyes of the All, what have you done, boy?”

Innel felt a rush of anger at having to stop suddenly again. His shoulders ached.

More were gathering against the paneled walls to watch, quietly whispering to each other.

“Lord Commander,” Innel said, choosing his next words with care. How to keep this conversation short? “I am on my way to see the king.”

At that, surely the man would move aside. Anyone with sense would. But he did not. Lason, the king’s brother, commander of the Host of Arunkel, did not much like Innel. Had not liked either of the mutts.

“What in the seven hells is that on your back?”

“The king, ser,” Innel repeated.

Lason looked him up and down with a disgusted look.

“You’ve gone far past the line this time, boy.”

Innel bit back all the words that came to him and buried his all-too familiar desire to pummel the other man into senselessness. He could probably take him now — sixty-something, gone soft and slow since the days he had taught weapons in the Cohort by hitting them full force when they didn’t get out of the way — but it would be the last thing he did. While Innel’s friends in the military might hesitate, or even feel remorse, they would cut him down if Lason ordered them to.

Restraint, he reminded himself.

More importantly, the king.

“We will see.” he said. Then with some effort he stepped to the side and around the Lord Commander, who turned in place to watch him go.

Lason spat and loudly. “You insolent, stupid, mongrel pup.”

That would garnish the best dish of the day’s news — possibly the year’s, depending on how the rest of this day went for Innel — spreading as fast as feet could dash and tongues could twirl, from west gate to east wall. A half hour at most, he would wager, for the tale to reach everyone inside the palace walls, from royals to servants, aristocrats to soldiers, bathhouse to scullery. How Innel brought a body home and the Lord Commander had spat on him and insulted him.

Innel suspected that not much work would get done today.

For a bizarre moment, he imagined dropping the body and walking out the huge front doors of the palace and leaving. He wondered how far he’d get.

Probably not even to the doors. Far too late to change his mind.