The Seer – Snippet 22
“The males fight when they’re too crowded,” she said. “This was the best of my stud-cocks. Yesterday.”
“I am late to attend the king,” Innel said. “Do you know about my betrothal to the princess, Cahlen? Do you know what has been happening?”
“You killed my brother. Now you kill my birds.”
He exhaled frustration. “Cahlen, you don’t understand –”
But she had said what she came to say and turned away, walking to the door, brushing close by Nalas as she went. He quickly stepped back. She left.
Srel focused on the needle he held, tying off a knot, then motioning Nalas close to provide him a knife to cut the thread.
“We will need to do something about her, ser,” Srel said, stepping back.
“Start by making sure she looks like she belongs in the palace. If you can figure out the dovecot problem, do that, too.”
Innel pulled on his boots — again, despite the fact that they would come off as quickly as the jacket once he was in the royal bath.
And an honor, he reminded himself. A point of status, anyway; not everyone had even seen the king’s bath, let alone the king inside it.
Srel was kneeling at his feet, tying the straps of his boot around horn-cut buttons. He stood, reaching up to adjust Innel’s collar and cuffs and run a comb through his hair and beard.
“Something in magenta?” Innel asked, thinking of Cern.
As well as Innel knew the palace language of clothes and color, Srel knew it even better. “Not yet, ser.”
Innel nodded and left.
The royal bath was a large room, walls tiled in white stone, ceiling and sunken tub inlaid with black and red quartz. From the wide window, cut glass caught the light, casting shaped reflections on the walls that changed with the time of day. In the mornings, one could see birds and butterflies on the far wall and floor. Now, sunset, it was ships, moving slightly, as if on a sea.
Innel bowed as he entered, waiting for permission. Best to be careful; he’d found that when soaking in hot water, the Anandynar royals could be especially touchy.
“Yes, yes,” Restarn said impatiently from the huge rectangular tub, waving him in. Steam rose to partially obscure the overhead mosaic, a circle of the sigils of the Eight Houses. Innel made sure that his glance up did not stop at any one sigil; it was the sort of thing he would have looked for, had he been the king.
A few servants were scattered about the room, bringing scented herbs and soaps, or sponging the king’s royal back.
Innel’s gaze stopped on the large male slave who suddenly stood before him, blue eyes downcast, blond hair falling in locks down his muscled shoulders. He felt his heart start to race. Only years of careful practice allowed him to keep his gaze moving past the man as if he barely saw him.
What was it about this particular slave that caught his eye?
The way he held himself, was what. So much like memory.
As the slave helped Innel off with his jacket, tension made Innel wanted to swallow, but the king’s line of sight was direct. Instead he walked to the bench, forcing his movements to be calm and unhurried. Sitting slowly, he reached for the ties of his boot.
Another royal gesture, and a female slave knelt at Innel’s feet, her golden hair cascading over her face as she bent over his boot. The man joined her. One on each foot, each unwrapping leather straps, removing boots and socks.
“She’s new,” Restarn said. “What do you think of her?”
Innel forced his gaze to the woman. She turned her face upward for inspection, looking beyond him.
Sky-colored eyes below long, golden lashes. A slender chin. Full lips. Beyond beautiful.
“Breathtaking, Sire,” he said, hoping the king would mistake the oddness in his tone for awe.
The king chuckled.
Look at something else. Think of something else.
Through the far window the sun was setting in vibrant shades of orange and vermilion. From the Great Houses to the bay’s shimmering sea, the city seemed gilded in gold. A marvel of glass-craft, this window, well beyond the present-day ability of House Glass. Mage-made, most likely.
Though again, not something to say aloud. Only the king could break both custom and laws with impunity.
Innel tried to remember which of the Anandynar royals had built this bath. The Grandmother Queen, he was pretty sure. A pragmatic ruler, Nials esse Arunkel, quietly rumored to have kept mages more openly than her descendants. Why Restarn, who revered her enough to have coins minted in her likeness, did not do likewise, he did not know.
When Cern came to power, well. Perhaps then.
“I’m thinking of breeding her, Innel. Her hair is soft as silk. Go on, feel it.”
Willing his breath to slow, Innel put a hand on the woman’s head.
Just like one of the king’s puppies, he told himself.
“And the other. Go on, see how soft his hair is, too.”
Gold inside as well.
Innel’s stomach lurched.
It occurred to him that the king might be doing all this to unsettle him, but surely the incident had happened too long ago for him to think Innel would still be affected. He wanted to look at the king, judge his expression, but he didn’t dare. Not until he had made a good show of doing as he was told.
He drew the woman’s tresses through his hand. Then, affecting as much ease as he could, put a hand on the man’s head as well.
How old had he been? No more than seven, surely.
Innel remembered standing in the hallway that day, head bowed as the king and his entourage strode past. Then he had made the mistake of looking up. At a gesture from the king, one of his guards grabbed him by the arm and pulled him along.
Later, Innel would come to recognize the expression on the king’s face at that moment, an assessing scrutiny edged with amusement, and know that it presaged something unpleasant. Then, though, all he felt was pride that he had been selected while his cohort siblings were left behind.
As he walked behind the king with guards and retainers, a man strode at his side, naked to the waist, blond hair falling to his mid-back. One of the king’s fabled slaves, Innel knew, though he had only seen one at a distance before, at a musical performance in the Great Hall. A lithe woman, it was, kneeling at the king’s side, his hand on her shimmering head as the music began. Innel had stared wide-eyed at the exotic creature until Pohut, standing next to him, hit him sharply in the ribs to make him stop.
Walking along side, the young Innel stole another glance at the blonde man, trying to understand what about him was impressive. Clad only in simple black trousers, hands shackled in iron bands, he somehow looked anything but a slave. What was it?
The way he moved, Innel realized. How he held his head and shoulders. As if he were in command not only of this group of guards and retainers, but the king himself, even the entire palace. The king’s royal guard did not move as well as this man. Not even the king, he thought. The slave put him in mind of the king’s best stallions, who strutted and galloped as if the world existed to serve them.
Innel found himself standing up straighter, changing the roll of his shoulders, the tilt of his chin, even his stride, as he tried to emulate the compelling blond man who walked beside him.
The group descended one flight of stairs and then another, then through a corridor Innel had never seen before, to a room deep underground. They streamed in, door thudding shut behind. At a heavy wooden table, the slave was roughly shoved prone, held fast by a handful of guards.
At a nod from the king, one of the servants drew a knife. In a single, fast motion he sliced the man’s throat open. Gasping, thrashing, blood pulsed from the blond man’s neck, splattered across his pale chest.
The young Innel clenched his fists, mouth dropped open, eyes wide. With a horrified shock, he realized the king was watching him, his expression one of disappointment.