The Seer – Snippet 23
“You may go if you wish,” the king had then said.
Only two years in the Cohort then, but the young Innel knew perfectly well that these words were far from true. He tightened his stomach, clenched his jaw, and forced his gaze back to the man on the table, who was twitching and taking a very long time to die.
“You think we’ll find gold inside, Innel?” the king had asked.
What was the right answer? He desperately wished Pohut were here to give even so much as glance for guidance.
He knew the story, of course: how the pale-headed northerners had gold inside them, like pearls in oysters, which accounted for their pale hair. But was it true?
“I don’t know, Sire.”
Steady, he told himself. This would be over soon.
But it was not. The servants first cut the man’s golden hair at the scalp. The long locks were closely inspected, offered to the king, then laid aside. Next they cut into the dead man’s face and scalp, pulling skin away, digging out the eyeballs, handing each part to others who stood by to take it, making careful examination, often cutting it apart further on another table, before dropping the bits into buckets.
The slave’s fingers were cut off, skin stripped away in small segments, ligaments pulled off bone, bones crushed with mallets against the stone floor. Each piece again meticulously reviewed, given to the king at a word to inspect. Blood dripped off the table, sluiced with water onto the sloped stone floor, oozing redly into a central drain beneath. They cut into the stomach and pulled out organs trailing intestines, dicing them into small bits on another side table. As one might prepare sausage for a stew. All the bits were then strained through a weave in a careful search, liquid dripping through.
Innel felt sick.
There was very little talk. The sounds of bones being ground. Bits of wet meat dropping into buckets. The room stank of blood, offal, and emptied bowels.
It took hours. Innel held himself as still as a statue, not daring to even look away from the table, terrified he might find the king watching him.
When at last the body had been completely taken apart, the table empty but for the tiniest bits, and soaked in blood, buckets of meat and pulverized bone lined the wall.
Nothing that remained was recognizable as the man who had walked beside him in the corridor.
Servants then hefted the buckets and left to take the remains to feed the royal pigs.
The young Innel found himself wondering if the blond man had known this was coming as he walked here so proudly. If he had, surely he would have fought it, even knowing that it would do no good.
Or perhaps he had indeed known, and knowing was what had given him the bearing that had so impressed Innel.
“Now,” the king said. “We are finally and completely certain.” And then he had laughed, a sound that haunted Innel for many nights after.
There was no gold inside. Not a single flake.
With a bow to the king, a servant offered him the long strands of gold-colored hair. Long, long locks of shimmering hair.
Much like the long, long locks that Innel now held in his hand as he sat in the royal bath room, under the king’s close scrutiny from the tub.
Restarn snapped a finger, motioned, and both slaves stood quickly, the woman’s long tresses flowing through Innel’s hands as she pulled away. The two of them left through a side door.
Innel exhaled softly, finally daring a look at Restarn, finding his expression unfathomable.
“You seem distracted, Innel. Not getting enough sleep?” The king grinned widely. Of course he knew that Innel was sleeping with Cern.
“No, Sire, I am not.” Innel gave a small smile in return to show he shared the king’s amusement and met his gaze, but broke away first.
Just like with the dogs: show strength, but not dominance, not until you’re absolutely sure you can win.
That would come.
“Innel, we must talk about the wedding.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Innel responded, relieved to be discussing the future rather than remembering the past.
“I need someone to go to Arteni.”
“Arteni, Sire?” Innel frowned. A town along the Great Road, a central collection point for grain in the surrounding fertile lands. Contracted directly to the crown in the last Charter Court, as he recalled.
“They’ve made the poor decision to sell some of their harvest to traders in Munasee. Maybe they thought they could get a better price there. Maybe they thought we wouldn’t notice.” He gave Innel an unpleasant smile. “An insult to me, personally, and an affront to our hungry citizens. I need someone to go and sort it out. Someone I can trust not to be soft about it.”
Innel could see where this was going. “It would be a great honor, Your Majesty. But with the wedding –”
“Exactly. I can’t marry my daughter to a captain. It would be embarrassing.” At this Innel felt a chill down his spine. “I could promote you, of course, but not without –” Restarn waved his hands as if searching for words, splashing a little water — “some demonstration of your capability to the generals. They think you’re unproven.”
“Unproven? They’ve been testing me for years. The Lord Commander in particular.” He still had the scars.
“Yes, yes, I know. But they’ll say pretend battles make for pretend soldiers.”
It was one of the king’s favorite maxims. Of course they would say it.
“I’ve been out on campaign repeatedly, Sire, and –”
“Not in command,” said sharply. “I have to give them something if I’m going to give you a higher rank.”
There — he’d said it twice. The prize of advancement now dangled irresistibly in Innel’s mind. Were it bestowed on him by the king, it would say a great deal about the monarch’s faith in him. Given his lack of bloodline and House, that could matter, once he was wed to Cern. Could matter a great deal.
But Arteni was many days south. It would take him time to mobilize an armed force, even a small one. And how long would this sorting out take?
Innel could easily be gone months. That would delay the wedding. Take him from the palace. Away from all his plans, which might unravel quickly if he were not here to oversee them.
Away from Cern, whose interest might cool if he could not regularly remind her why she liked him.
No; there must be another way.
“You’ll need to install a new town council,” the king said. “Make sure they observe what you do to the old one — you understand. And the mayor, I don’t have to tell you how to handle him, do I?”
“Sire, the wedding –”
“We’ll put it off. Short delay, but for good cause. Midwinter, most likely.”
Innel thought furiously, quickly turning over what he might prudently say next. Not a time for missteps.
“Or,” said the king, drawing the word out, “I could send Sutarnan. He’s eager for the chance to prove himself. At times I think Cern might still hold some fondness for that boy, cheeky as he is. And Mulack — I still wonder if he might be a bit of a late-blooming rose.”
Mulack was nothing like a late-blooming rose. He was eparch-heir to House Murice, and had no interest in getting his hands dirty.
But the point was now more than clear. He was being played on the king’s board. To resist would mean being taken out of the game.
He had no choice.
“It will be my great honor to serve, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, it will. Better get to it, then.” He motioned, and servants came running to give Innel back his boots and jacket.
He’d been dismissed to what promised to be a sizable task. Standing, he bowed deeply, keeping his seething entirely on the inside.
Again his mind went to the Botaros girl. If he had her in hand, all this would have been avoided. Even now, she could advise him how to achieve a fast victory south.
Where in the many hells was Tayre?