The Seer – Snippet 15
But it was too late for regrets. He would simply have to be careful what he told him. And get the man under contract.
Bolah had arranged their meeting at the Frosted Rose, an expensive eatery near the palace where lamps were kept dim to cater to merchants and aristocrats who found it prudent to conduct business away from House and palace.
Innel had dressed in the simple, nondescript garb that a merchant might wear. Nalas was at another table in a similar outfit. After a sip of sunken ale, a fermented drink he didn’t much like involving roots and fungus that was currently popular, he went to the toilet at the back of the inn. Nalas followed, and stood outside to discourage anyone else.
Inside, Innel opened a small vent above his head. He tapped the ceiling in a pattern of knocks based on a well-known ballad.
“Yes?” came a male voice.
“I am called Tayre. Bolah sent me. In what way can I assist you, ser?”
The tone was not what he had expected. Mild, nearly deferring. Perhaps the tone of a servant.
“She speaks highly of you,” Innel said with some doubt. “That you are without peer across the empire.”
A thoughtful sound. “That seems likely.” Was that disappointment in his tone?
Again, not the response Innel expected. “What you can do for me?”
“What do you need done?”
Innel hesitated. Every person who knew was a vulnerability. “There is a girl. I want her brought to me. Fast and quietly.”
“In what condition?”
“Intact. Alive and well. She is traveling with a woman and a baby. I want them, too, but the girl is my first concern.” He recalled how she had looked at her sister and cradled the baby. There were deep, isolated rooms in the palace dungeons that would house them all. He would clear one. “A bonus for the woman and baby.”
“What do you want with the girl?”
“Does it matter?”
“It might,” the man said. “I can’t know until you tell me.”
“I have questions for her that I don’t want anyone else asking.”
“Are others pursuing her?”
“No,” he said firmly, willing it to be so.
“Will you describe her?”
Again he hesitated. But really, what choice did he have? He could not fetch her himself.
Once he married Cern, once she was crowned, his position would be secure.
If he had the girl, that was.
“Perhaps twelve springs old,” Innel said. “Amarta al Botaros, or at least she was in Botaros last autumn.” Had so much time really passed since then? “Brown hair, past her shoulders. A roundish face, light green eyes, short nose. Her sister is perhaps twenty, with an infant in arms. A boy, I think. Botaros is a mountain village, southeast, off the Sennant River.”
“I know it.”
“How long will it take you, do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“What? No estimate?”
“Please understand,” Tayre said, “that when you contract with me, you purchase my ability to deliver what is possible and no more.”
Innel gave a soft laugh. “What does that mean?”
“It means that I deliver what you want, if it is in my capability.”
“That’s all you offer?”
“That is all I offer.”
Innel waited for more, but he was silent. No explanations, no promises. For a moment anger sparked in Innel. Was he being toyed with?
No, he was not, he realized. Innel was overly accustomed to the arrogant, blustery talk that made up most of palace conversation. This man was not from the palace. Not from anywhere nearby, either, he guessed. This was simply confidence. “I see,” he said slowly. “When can you begin?”
Spring weather had yet to arrive in force. Snow and ice still clung to the mountain peaks.
“As soon as we come to terms,” Tayre answered. “I will go to Botaros and track her. One hundred souver touches now, against expenses, one hundred more when I deliver her. Another hundred for the sister and baby. All alive.”
Expensive, but not nearly as dear as Innel had expected.
“Unrestricted passage through Arun.”
Arun, not Arunkel. Not quite an insult, but far from the patriotism Innel was accustomed to. “I can’t even promise myself that.”
“I will accept as sufficient a writ that neither you nor those under your command will detain me in any way.”
“Not if you break laws.”
Now there was open amusement in the other’s voice. “Have you heard the saying that one can break the king’s laws by sneezing, Captain?”
“Liberty and immunity? I can’t give you that.”
“I think in your future capacity as Royal Consort you can.”
“I see Bolah has failed to explain me; I do not bargain. Those are my terms. Do you decline the contract?”
There was something about the soft tone of voice that blunted words that would otherwise have been insulting. It was just the sort of clever trick his brother might have used. He reminded himself what Bolah had said, that there were others far less expensive and nearly as good.
No. He did not have time for mistakes. “What would you do with such free passage if you had it?”
“I have no specific plans.”
“I can’t promise such liberty without knowing.”
“Nothing to undermine your monarch’s agenda. Whoever it happens to be.”
A short chuckle. “No, Captain. I can’t afford to be caught between you and your sovereign. Choose one.”
Innel started to answer, stopped. As long as the girl was free to give accurate predictions to anyone else, his plans could be severely and rapidly undermined. At the same time, those plans depended on his unquestioned loyalty to the king and, if things went well, to Cern.
One answer put Innel in danger. The other was treason. Bolah was right. The man was good.
“To protect the crown, then,” Innel said, “you should first direct your loyalty to me.”
Treason it was.
“As you say, Captain. Do we have a contract?”
“I want to see what I’m buying.”
“Seeing me won’t reassure you.”
“You assume a lot about me for someone who doesn’t know me.”
“What makes you think I don’t know you?”
That caught Innel off guard. After a moment’s reflection, he decided the man was making a point rather than a threat.
“Also, consider this,” Tayre said. “As I go about your business, if I should be caught and brought before you and your monarch, you may disavow me with veracity. There are those who can tell lie from truth, just by hearing it spoken.”
“I have yet to meet such a person,” Innel said. It was one of a long list of abilities that mages were reputed to have.
“They don’t typically announce themselves.”
“Are you a mage, Tayre?”
A single laugh. “If I were, I would charge more. Perhaps I would even bargain. Hire my reputation, Captain, not my appearance.”
Innel preferred his contracts sealed with a formal handclasp as well as words. It was said that one could judge how well a person would fulfill their commitment by the hands and eyes in the moment of binding. Innel fancied that he had that skill. Furthermore, he was curious about what Tayre looked like, curious if he would be disappointed. But the man was right in his points, and curiosity was not reason enough. It was, as always, a balance of risks.
“I accept your terms,” Innel said, initiating the litany that sealed the bond.
“Our contract is made,” Tayre replied, completing the verbal binding.
As Innel listened to the man’s soft steps fade across the roof, he wondered which of the dungeon rooms would attract the least attention.