The Seer – Snippet 07

Now his spectators were past pretending to be on some other task, but simply stood and watched. From the Cohort he saw the curly haired Mulack, entirely in the purple and white of his House. He stood by a smirking Sutarnan, who was claimed by two Houses and yet dressed entirely in palace colors. They were whispering to each other and would, Innel was sure, be more than happy to see his body laid out by his brother’s by day’s end.

A servant held a covered dish smelling like duck that made Innel’s mouth water and stomach grumble. Just past him stood Tokerae, another cohort sibling, slouching against the wall, his heavy chain of copper and charcoal iron his only nod to his House. The same age as Innel, Tok was finally thickening after years of being painfully thin and overly tall.

As Innel met his look, Tok gave him the smallest of nods.

Well, so, there was at least one person in the palace who even now supported Innel. He would not forget that.

Three years ago Tok had quietly told the two brothers he would no longer court Cern and would back the two of them instead. Still, Tok had said, it would be best if that didn’t get back to his mother, Eparch of House Etallan, who was still harboring fond hopes of having a son married into the royal Anandynar line.

Ascending another long flight of stairs, shoulders burning, Innel walked another corridor. Word had preceded him, and this hallway too was lined with onlookers. He let his gaze slowly rake across their faces, seeing who looked back, who shifted away, who smiled in support, who grimaced with uncertainty. If he survived today, he would remember them all.

He headed toward the king’s audience chamber. A likely wait of hours, given the monarch’s usual schedule, but at least he could rest a moment, maybe even put his brother down.

To his surprise, one of the king’s retainers waved him over, holding him with a gesture, then exchanged a few quick, urgent whispers with the king’s seneschal, a gaunt man with graying hair who never smiled, who glared at Innel furiously over his papers. The Seneschal then waved him through the just-opening doors of a lesser audience chamber.

He did as he was told and walked inside. Behind him the doors closed.

At the end of the room sat the king, white-haired, white-bearded, sitting in a heavy ebony and bronze chair atop a dais. He leaned on one arm, the other hand slowly straightening the collar of his morning robe, which was the color of red amaranth.

Restarn esse Arunkel. Restarn who is Arunkel. A thinning face betrayed his age, but the old man was still strong enough to give the impression the empire ran exactly as he wanted it to.

By him stood Cern, arms crossed, hands vanished inside the loose sleeves of her similarly colored robe, her face a mask of indifference, a mirror of her father’s. That they both wore morning robes told Innel they had come from their rooms, recently woken. Possibly by reports of Innel coming back from his wandering, carrying a body.

Well, that was a kind of reassurance, that Restarn was willing to leave his bed to find out what Innel had brought home.

He could read nothing from them. The only emotion before him was at the king’s feet, where a pair of his favorite royal dichu dogs sat on their haunches, faces brindled in black and tan, eyes bright, black-tipped ears up and forward, noses twitching eagerly.

One of the dangerous jokes that one never repeated came to him, the one about how the king’s fondness for his bitches explained both the proliferation of dichu puppies and his single heir. Innel had heard it once, a long time ago, from a drunken scullery boy whom he had never seen again.

The king snapped his fingers and gestured. Both dogs dropped to their bellies, noses still quivering. Scenting his brother’s body, Innel guessed, even from this distance.

Prudence would say follow them down, so he did. Innel let Pohut’s body slide off his shoulders onto to the polished stone floor and went to his knees. He touched his head to the floor three times in the direction of his monarch and once to Cern.

Full formality. If ever there was a time for it, this was it.

“Your Most Excellent Majesty,” he said, wondering what to say next.

“Show us,” said the king.

Innel sat back on his heels, gestured to the knife on his belt. “With permission, Sire.”

Restarn waved him on impatiently.

Innel cut the knots and rent the fabric covering the head. He pulled back the burlap to reveal his brother’s face. Now no doubt remained.

In the silence that followed, Innel thought of many things. Of growing up in the Cohort, his brother at his side. Of their last, violent encounter. Of all his plans. With a small surprise, he realized he did care if his sister Cahlen lived beyond today.

He looked up. Cern’s mouth was open, her expression stricken, no longer anything like impassive. It was one thing to suspect and another to know.

She had cared for Pohut. The devotion with which the brothers had courted the princess their entire lives had paid off a few years ago when Cern had finally allowed that she held some small affection for them both. Then her father had pressed her to choose one, so of course she would not, carefully apportioning her attention to them equally.

His brother would have been quite pleased at the grief on her face now.

“Well,” the king said.

Innel got to his feet. What he said next could determine his prospects at the palace, his chances with Cern, and whether he would live to see sunset.

“He tried to kill me, Sire. Came at me with a knife. I had no choice.”

Short. Direct. Perhaps it would carry the force of veracity.

And it was true, mostly, though Pohut hadn’t actually used the knife, because Innel hadn’t given him the chance.

Don’t hesitate. Because he will.

Restarn’s silence hung. Heavy with implication, weighted with consequence. The king looked him over, then his eyes flickered to the body.

Long silences were one of the king’s tactics for getting people to talk. Innel had seen it many times in the monarch’s adjudications. A terrified petitioner facing the king’s expectant but wordless expression would babble. The mouth would open and damning words would pour forth.

Innel knew this, but even having watched innocent men talk their way to the hanging walls, he now felt an almost irresistible need to explain and defend. Clamping his jaw tight, he forced himself to think through what might be going on in the king’s mind.

It was no secret that Restarn was impatient to have Cern produce issue, to continue the Anandynar line and the unbroken rule of centuries. But surely he must realize that if he took Innel out of the picture, Cern could become mule-stubborn, refusing anyone else. Tempted though he must be, the king could hardly shove her in a cage and wait for her to go into heat as he did with his dogs. She must say yes.

It was a stand off as old as Cern.

Innel and Pohut had become, he suspected, the only candidates that she and her father could agree on. Innel was betting that the king could see that his life was worth more than his death.

But the king did not like having his choices curtailed, either, and might resent Innel removing one of the other possibilities as much as Cern did.

The next moment was too easy to imagine: the king would call an order, the doors would open, swords would be drawn.

A few years ago, an overly witty ambassador was beheaded exactly where Innel was now standing. By the time Innel and the rest of the Cohort had come to gawk, servants were mopping up the last of the blood and bits. The head had been mounted on Execution Square’s hanging wall for a good ten-day, a strangely thoughtful expression on the ambassador’s face.

At least it had been fast. Innel hoped he wasn’t important enough for the full treatment in Execution Square. Those tended to take a very long time.

He swallowed, throat dry, wishing for water, and looked down at his brother’s face.

Always the calm one, Pohut, even now.

When at last Innel looked up, Restarn was watching him, a terrifyingly thoughtful expression on his face. Then the king made a clicking sound behind closed lips, a sound Innel had come to know well: the monarch had decided.

“He is to be despised,” Restarn said flatly. “A criminal’s burial.”

Relief flooded Innel, and he sucked in air. He would keep his life today.

Cern stiffened, drew herself up, turned angrily, stormed out. Innel might be her best remaining choice, but that was not the same thing as winning her.

But he had survived; he could manage Cern. A problem for later.

“I’ll expect you at the meal,” the king said, ignoring Cern’s departure. “Get cleaned up.”

“I should see my mother, Sire. Tell her. She should know.”

“She already knows. The entire palace knows. Half the city knows.”

Half the city?

Restarn said more with tone than he did with words, and woe to those who didn’t hear. Like the witty ambassador. What did this mean?