The Seer – Snippet 44
“No, no,” said Tok helpfully, pouring a liberal amount of ale into Mulack’s goblet.
Glass number five. Ale, not wine.
“To our brother, Innel,” said Taba, raising her glass to Innel with a sideways look at Mulack. “May he continue to bring honor to our beloved empire.”
“And may the stench of his astonishingly good fortune permeate all our lives in like fashion,” said Sutarnan with uncommon passion.
Innel remembered something Pohut used to say: Poverty and power both require arrogance. Moving between them, though, often requires the appearance of humility. He gave Sutarnan what he hoped was a modest smile.
“Good fortune!” cried Mulack with a large grin, the gesture overly wide, glass raised so quickly there was wine dribbling over his fingers. “To the heir’s new and virile stud-to-be. May he succeed where all others have failed.”
It was close enough to what should never be said aloud, about the king’s lack of heirs, that the laughter at the table died suddenly.
For some reason everyone looked at Innel.
“Do explain your meaning, Mulack,” Innel said pleasantly.
“Why — marrying the princess, of course.” He gestured around the table with his wet hand still clutched around his goblet. “A feat at which every one of us has marvelously failed.” As if he were a lamp suddenly snuffed out, Mulack’s drunken expression and smile vanished. “Where you, Innel, have succeeded so splendidly.”
Looking over the rim of his goblet at Innel, Mulack emptied his glass.
The wedding, initially postponed because of Innel’s campaign, was postponed again. First a tenday. Then two.
There was always a good reason, and of course it was always the king’s decision.
Innel was sorely tempted to push, to point out that he’d done everything the king had commanded. Had butchered Arteni townspeople to prove his loyalty to the crown, to demonstrate his leadership ability.
Had gotten Cern to say yes.
He already knew what his brother would say; he had said it often: Don’t push until you must. Then go in with all you have.
It was not time to push, so he must be patient. He had Cern’s good will in his pocket now, and prudence dictated holding steady, seeming to be confident in the outcome. He put his focus on keeping both Cern and the king happy, as he gathered what support he could.
An odd position, this one in which he found himself: as long as he was on track to marry Cern, and she on track to become queen, his influence grew, but his coin did not.
With one notable, recent exception. “Make your hire,” Tok had told him softly. “I have funds in hand.” Meaning the mage.
He would have Srel send word to a down-city broker he knew, rather than go through Bolah. Best not to always use the same path to a destination.
No, on second thought, he would tell Bolah as well and see which pathway succeeded first.
Best to have them search outside the city. Any mage in Yarpin was likely already aligned with the old king. Innel needed someone new, someone who did not already know the Anandynars.
Then, one evening, alone with Srel, frustrated, he asked, “Is this damned thing going to happen or not?”
Outside swirls of snow flew sideways past the window. In the gardens below a dusting of white collected.
Srel followed his look, then poured hot spiced wine from a flagon with one hand while he dribbled cream from a small cylinder with the other.
“Coin has been committed to the feast, and a fair bit of it. That would seem a strong indicator of yes.”
“Then why is the king still delaying?”
“Oh, that. Well, ser…” A small smile.
“He has mixed feelings?”
“Very much so, I think.”
“The mutts,” Innel said, using the title no one would now dare speak.
Srel made a sound indicating disagreement. “I think he likes being king, ser.”
After all the times Restarn had pushed Cern to choose a mate and promised her the throne if she did, a wed Cern was one less excuse. He wanted his daughter to continue his bloodline, but was loathe to give up the crown.
There was, Innel suspected, another reason. He thought Cern weak.
It was no secret he had long hoped Cern would blossom into a replica of the Grandmother Queen Nials esse Arunkel, a powerful ruler who kept the empire strong and expanding.
Innel had watched the king as he scrutinized his dogs in the fighting pits to determine which would be given the chance to sire the next bitch’s litter. Innel had seen the intensity of his attention. Restarn cared about one thing: winning. As long as you managed that, some rules could be bent along the way.
Suddenly Innel understood that bringing back his brother’s body had not made the king doubt Innel at all, but rather the opposite; it was what had convinced him that Innel was a suitable mate for Cern. The king thought he had sacrificed his brother to win her.
At this thought Innel felt sickened, closely followed by the fear that if he looked deep into himself, he would find it was true.
He pushed it all away. It didn’t matter; it was the past. There was one direction open to him now, one path, and he’d staked everything he had on it. Unlike the rest of the Cohort with their Houses and wealth, he had no second-best option.
“After that, the Lesser Houses will enter here and here, march around the columns here, stand staggered thus and so behind the Great Houses.” The king’s seneschal looked up sourly from his diagrams at Innel as if doubting he understood.
One wedding date had replaced another so many times that Innel had stopped paying them much attention, so he was more than a little surprised to be standing in the seneschal’s office surrounded by a handful of assistants, the wedding still scheduled for the morning after next.
Might it actually happen?
Most of those who directly served the king, like the seneschal, had offices lining the side of the palace that looked over the walls of the palace grounds onto Execution Square. Innel was looking out just such a window, wondering when they were going to take down the two ice-covered torsos hanging on the square’s display wall.
“And so the Great Houses are in front, represented by a count of — Innel, what is the count from each of the Houses?”
“Twenty-five per House,” he answered, without looking away from the frozen bodies. “The Lessers each have ten.” It was like being drilled, back in Cohort days; a part of his mind was always ready with a correct answer, trained by pain and hunger to never be without.
“Everything must be done exactly as specified. Any mistake will reflect poorly on the king.”
How many times had he heard that admonition?
“Yes,” he said.
“You must nod your head exactly the same amount for each gift from each of the Greater Houses. And likewise, but in lesser measure, for each of the Lesser Houses. Did you practice with a mirror?”
In his peripheral vision, Innel could see the gaunt man look at Srel for an answer.
“Yes,” Innel replied, trying not to sound as irritated as he felt.
“Now we will review the vows –”
“I know them.”
“We will go over them again. There must be no deviation. Not a word. You see where this mark is between the words? That means you inhale at that time. Do you understand?”
Innel wondered if the Grandmother Queen had been as creative in her executions as was her grandson. He should ask his Cohort brother Putar, who had made a particularly detailed study of those histories.
“Srel, be sure he has them memorized.” A rustling sound told him that the seneschal had handed Srel yet another set of papers. “Now — the roster of attendees.”
A paper was being held up in front of Innel’s face, blocking his view.
“I know them,” Innel said.
“Be sure you do, ser. This list is as if chiseled in stone, and yet it may change at the last minute. So memorize also this secondary roster — “Another piece of paper with hundreds of names on it,” — of those who have requested to attend should something happen to those who have been directly invited.”