The Seer – Snippet 09
Her expression shifted, mouth went slack, eyes unfocused. There it went, the storm. He waited a moment to be certain, then with a nod at his mother, who stood as if frozen, he left.
Outside the three guards waited.
“What in the seven hells was that about?” He stepped up close to Nalas, pushed him sharply with both hands, harder than he intended. Nalas stumbled back, tensed, and Innel found himself unreasonably hoping for a fight.
Nalas raised his hands in appeasement.
“His Majesty’s orders.”
At this Innel forced himself to calm. He wanted to hit something, but a fight here and now over this would be foolish.
“All right,” he said, breathing deeply. “Why?”
“Protecting you?” Nalas replied, a tinge of wry apology in his tone.
“From Cahlen?” Innel said, incredulous. “But she’s harmless.”
Nalas gave a shrug that said he didn’t disagree.
The king was guarding him? From what?
While he was formulating what he might sensibly ask Nalas, knowing that every word would get back to Restarn, Cahlen emerged. Behind her his mother’s face flashed a moment in the doorway and then vanished, the door slamming shut. She wanted nothing to do with this.
Well, neither did he.
As two guards stepped to intercept Cahlen, Nalas stepped back, a hand on the hilt of his sword.
Innel could see this playing out very badly indeed. He stepped into the middle of this, a hand to stop Nalas from drawing his blade.
Oblivious, Cahlen walked directly to Innel. To the other two guards, he held up a closed fist in an abrupt motion. Everyone stopped but his sister.
“Cahlen,” he said sharply, to get her attention.
Innel could imagine the stories that would follow this: not only had Innel slain his brother, but the very day the king let him walk away from that, he had tried to kill his own sister in the hallway outside his mother’s apartment.
It wouldn’t matter that the king had ordered these guards, or that Innel had not drawn a blade; rumor had a way of following blood.
Untrained, unarmed, and half his weight, Cahlen was scarcely more dangerous to him than one of her messenger birds. But the guards were plenty dangerous; if she were seized by another tantrum now and came at him, they would take her down and hurt her, regardless of what Innel said or did.
He searched her face as she came close. Was she still angry?
Close enough to hit. Close enough to kiss. She did neither, standing scant inches from him, looking up at him, blinking rapidly.
“Cahlen?” he asked gently.
“Brother.” She gulped for air. She seemed upset, almost about to weep. He had not seen her cry since she was a baby. But this was not a typical day.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I need to fix the East tower dovecote,” she said, voice low. “The birds are too crowded. They don’t fly well. Will you ask for me? The king, the ministers, whoever it is that you must ask.”
When Innel and Pohut, five and seven, had been taken into the Cohort, the group had numbered nearly forty children, ten of them girls. Cahlen had been brought in two years later, but in weeks was sent back to live with their mother. Between the strange moods, insensible responses, and a tendency to become overly violent when confused, she was deemed unsuited.
Over the years Cahlen showed a strong talent with animals. Now she was an assistant bird-keeper, living in the tower-shaped dovecote, breeding doves, training them to carry messages back to the palace.
In this moment, her fury at their brother’s death mysteriously dissipated, all she demanded from him was a favor.
“I will,” he told her earnestly.
With that she turned wordlessly away, walking down the hall, only a small limp in her step to indicate anything had transpired besides conversation. As she went, she brushed her hand through her thick, short mass of hair. A bit of birdseed dropped onto the wooden flooring.
And now to Cern.
He waited a few days to let her fury ease, then visited her suites. Sachare came into the hallway to meet him.
Most of the girls of the Cohort had left early, somewhat less motivated by the often brutal competitions that so often comprised so much of Cohort life. Of those who had finished, Taba was now a navy ship’s captain and Larmna had been put in charge of House Nital’s amardide forests in the Kathorn province. Sachare had become Cern’s chamberlain.
His cohort sister was a tall woman, her hands tucked into the pockets of her red robes trimmed in dark pinks and gold, marking her as one of the princess’s staff. A magenta sapphire glinted in her right ear. Cern’s color.
“No,” Sachare said, simply and clearly.
He hadn’t expected Cern to let him in easily, and it was no surprise to have Sachare sent to stand in his way, but he had thought to get into the antechamber, at least. Not to have the conversation in the hallway, in front of a tencount of royal guards who had no reason to keep it to themselves.
“Her words or yours?” he asked.
“Mine are less polite.”
“Oh?” He stepped toward her, too close, just short of what might have been considered threatening, a line his cohort brothers and sisters knew well. “What would yours be?”
From her changing expression, he could see that she was weighing various answers. She shook her head.
“He was a traitor, Sachare.”
“So we’ve heard.” A small, bitter smile. “In any case, it’s not me you have to convince.”
“Then let me in.”
“She hasn’t given a new answer since I told you a moment ago.”
“I can change her mind. You know that.”
“You may not enter, Innel.”
That was clear enough. Cern would need more time.
Still he hesitated, wondering if he should give Sachare the gift he’d brought for Cern, a small book he’d been holding in reserve for such a need. Full-color drawings of birds of prey, their silhouettes, descriptions of their calls and hunting habits. The sort of thing that would appeal to the princess. Expensive.
“He was a good man,” Sachare said softly.
This caught Innel off guard. He looked away, the words echoing in his head. When he had his feelings again in hand, he looked back, meeting her stare. “So am I.”
“As you say.” A hard tone.
He held out the book to Sachare. “Give her this for me.”
Wordlessly she took it from him and returned to the princess’s rooms, the sound of the door shutting behind her echoing in the corridor. Her guards watched him silently.
A gentle touch, his brother would have said of Cern now, so furious. Close but not too close.
Like the rope game they’d all played in the Cohort, each holding an end to try to pull each other off-stance with sudden yanks and misdirection.
Hold solid to the rope. Keep the line alive, not too slack, not too tight.
And never look away.
Weeks went by. Cern kept a stony silence. When he approached she looked away, rebuffing him openly, and he knew better than to come close enough that she might signal her guards to intercept.
Appearances mattered. When rejected, he made sure to seem pained and conflicted, like a hurt lover pretending not to care. He set his gaze to linger on her when she was carefully not looking in his direction. He passed by her suites daily, slowing as he did.
When he and his brother used to fish together, they would find the underwater creature’s location from the eddies and ripples it caused across the surface. The palace was like a lake; even if Cern did not see his longing looks directly, the ripples would get back to her. He had to be patient.
But he did not feel patient. He lay awake past the midnight bells, mind circling around what he had done that day to draw her back to him, wondering if it was too much or too little.
Somehow he had to convince her that what he had done in Botaros made sense. The king would only wait so long before looking again at his second-best choices in the Cohort. He had given Innel an opening. He wanted Innel to win.
Innel needed to get Cern to choose him. Nothing could be more important.
Almost nothing. One afternoon, a casual comment from Restarn made it clear that Innel was expected to attend the next day’s trade council. Innel studied the trade ledgers deep into the night to arrive well-prepared, because the king did not make casual comments.
A few days later, he was woken at dawn by the unsmiling seneschal who explained that Innel would oversee the rebuild of the burnt stable auxiliary. Yes, starting now. In his spare time, the Seneschal added, Innel would provide the king an analysis of the ministerial council’s resolution on a stack of tangled and conflicting House petitions.
Still being tested, then. He thought he’d proved himself worthy already to the king, again and again, but apparently not.
So be it; he applied himself to every task, working as hard as ever. Before he quite realized it, he was spending hours a day with the king. At meals, answering challenges like Cohort drills, then pulled in for fast minutes between appointments to suggest courses of action. Even attending the king at his bath, where he couldn’t help but notice that the man was hale and healthy for near eighty.