The Seer – Snippet 10
And yet, near eighty he was. As the king aged, with only the one heir, who stubbornly refused to be wed — let alone impregnated — good wishes for the king’s health took on new tension. Everyone wanted to know who followed Cern on the succession list. Restarn would not say.
Traditionally, this list lived in a strongbox under the monarch’s bed and was thrice-sealed. A key, a press-trap, and one final means, unspecified, but quietly said to be mage-lock. If the monarch should die before Cern was queen and no mage came forward to liberate the succession list, there would be chaos among the king’s siblings and their offspring, and pushback from the Great Houses and the Cohort children.
The other Cohort children. Not the mutts.
How well Innel was now passing the king’s tests was not at all clear to him. The king showed neither approval nor disapproval, quite unlike the trials of Cohort childhood, when Innel’s mistakes were made clear with beatings and missed meals.
Now that he considered that from the vantage of an adult perspective, he was not at all sure he liked this better. There was a lot to be said for clarity.
One day, without warning, Restarn tossed him a captaincy. That seemed an answer of sorts.
Best of all, it came with an increase in pay. Since the trip to Botaros, he had been chronically short of funds.
Botaros. The girl who had set him on this course. A frayed, dangling thread, one he needed to cut before it unraveled the entire garment.
At least the king hadn’t charged him rent on the horse.
Again he went to see Cern. This time he was let into the antechamber.
“She liked the book,” Sachare told him.
“Excellent. Let me see her.”
“She still says no.”
With a bit of a flourish, he held out his hand and opened his fingers, revealing a dark square. Sachare took it, sniffed it.
“She can get candy any time she likes, Innel.”
“Not from me, she can’t.”
At that Sachare chuckled a little, put the piece in her pocket, and dismissed him.
Gentle persistence, he told himself as he walked away, knowing that his repeated rejection here was the subject of palace gossip.
So be it.
As winter froze the world outside the palace, Mulack, Dil, and, to his surprise, even Sutarnan came to see him, offering pleasantries that implied support, should things go well. As if the bloody, brutal Cohort fights across the years were merely playful roughhousing.
But Innel knew better than to reveal his grudges. If he succeeded with Cern, there would be time later to address those who had supported his cause only when the winds were in his favor. And if he failed, it wouldn’t matter. He could be tossed onto the street with nothing.
Or worse yet, with his mother and sister.
One morning, these dark possibilities churning in the back of his mind while he struggled with an accounting error he’d been set to resolve, there was a pounding on the door to his small room. A set of servants streamed in, directed by the Seneschal’s second. Over Innel’s objections, they picked up everything of his that they could carry. While he watched in wordless astonishment, they marched his belongings down the hallway.
He followed them, up a floor and toward the royal wing, to a double-room apartment. Stunned, he stood in the hallway, watching them array his belongings, the accounting book still under his arm.
Sutarnan stepped to his side. “Congratulations, Captain. Let’s celebrate your new quarters tonight.”
How did Sutarnan know about Innel’s new rooms before he did?
He had been too busy; he had neglected his various contacts. Sutarnan knew because he had neglected no one.
The double room, it turned out, was not entirely for Innel; the second section had six cots laid out, and, as he watched, a set of guards were making themselves at home.
“What is this?” he demanded, struggling to regain some semblance of control.
“King’s orders, sir,” said Nalas, putting his things by the cot nearest the door.
Innel puzzled over this. Guards to protect him? From what? Jealous cohort brothers? In case he might want to leave the palace again on some wild midnight ride?
That evening, Sutarnan came with a vintner’s matrass of sweet red wine. Innel barked a loud laugh at the offering, watching as the grin fled the other man’s face in rare uncertainty.
He clasped Sutarnan’s shoulders enthusiastically.
“Friends, always,” he told him with just enough mockery to keep Sutarnan on edge for the entirety of the two hours they spent drinking together. He pressed Sutarnan to talk about old times, specifically to recount various events in which Sutarnan had been the agent of Innel and his brother’s difficulties. Sutarnan had left uneasy, a result Innel found both petty and satisfying.
The wine, also, had been very good.
The next day he went to the king’s Seneschal and named Srel as his captain’s clerk.
“I will have to confirm this with the king,” the Seneschal said.
“No, you won’t. And Srel will need a raise in pay appropriate to his new position.”
At this the Seneschal’s mouth worked tightly, as if he were sucking on a dirty rock. After a moment he nodded slowly and turned away. This told Innel more than all the rumors put together.
So what was he now? Consort-apparent? He’d never heard of such a thing in his studies of monarchical history, but it seemed so.
Except that Cern still wouldn’t speak to him.
He continued his diligent attention to her, sitting near her at meals, coming to her suite daily, where he instead spoke with Sachare.
Cern would come around, he told himself. In time. Patience.
Innel ran the garrison every day, his guards following in his wake. It was important to make sure that those who carried weapons regularly in the palace grounds didn’t forget he was still one of them.
Today at the fields, a game of two-head was just beginning, the teams marked by colored bands tied around foreheads. A small audience of off-duties had gathered to watch. The two teams tossed their respective balls to each other to warm up, one black, one red.
“Who do you favor, ser?” Nalas asked him.
At this, Innel considered what he knew about the players on the field. Overhearing, they paused, looked back at him, as did the off-duty soldiers gathered around. Those who had been talking stopped to look his way.
As some thirty people suddenly fell silent and waited on his next words, Innel felt odd. He did not know what to make of this.
And then he did. The guard suddenly made sense.
Not protection. Not to keep him at the palace. It was the king’s way of setting him apart. Cern might not yet have chosen him, but the king had.
Other things now made sense as well. The apartment. The many new tasks.
The king was not testing him. Or at least not only testing. Rather he was putting Innel in the position of consort. If not by title and not by Cern’s decision, by practical measure.
A tactical error where Cern was concerned, Innel knew. He wondered how Restarn could know his own daughter so poorly. No surprise that Cern’s demeanor had chilled further. She now looked past him as if he didn’t exist at all.
During meals he approached as near to her as Sachare would allow, letting himself look pained and frustrated as Cern turned away. He must seem just the right amount of concerned.
It was never far from his mind that Cern could still say no. The king could hardly keep him in this exalted yet nebulous position if she did. Innel would be no more than a mutt wandering the palace halls. Out of place, out of support. A frog in the open sea, amidst sharks.
He must get back into her good graces.
Deep winter hit the capital all at once in a heavy snow storm with freezing rains that coated the entire hill in slick ice, delaying delivery of the massive amount of food the palace consumed daily, ending up ripping to shreds a delicately crafted deal between Helata, Nital, and Murice to build a new fleet. The three Great Houses refused to clasp hands over the deal, and hard looks followed between their scions in the palace.
Had they been able to predict this sudden storm, the contract could have been formalized earlier, rather than as it was now, taking months more to soothe the three sides and get them back to the table. Even a day’s warning could have saved the contract, not to mention preserved the kitchens’ larders and hence meals for thousands.
But who could have known?
His thoughts returned to a candle lit hovel in a snow-clad village where there was a girl who could indeed predict the future.
He must act to bring the girl close by, where he could get his own answers and keep a watch on her and what she said to who. Bring the sister and baby as well to ensure her cooperation.
He could not leave and collect her himself, keenly watched as he was now. He would need someone else to do it for him. Someone competent and exceedingly discreet. That would take resources he did not yet have.
But would, when Cern came around.