The Seer – Snippet 53
Gallelon had said something about this when they were last together, as he had been repairing a saddle. “Do something other than tend to the endless ocean of suffering Iliban, Maris,” he had said as his needle dipped through the hard leather. She suspected he was using magic to help make the holes, and, curious, she tasted the air around the needle, keeping her touch focused so he would not notice. He did anyway, grinning back at her. “Take an expensive contract. Get paid for your work for a change.”
And she needed the coin.
“You may,” she told the Sensitive. The waif slipped off the chair and sprinted out the door.
Maris drank down the rest of the ale in front of her, which was neither as bad as she had expected nor as good as she’d hoped, and wondered what the contract might be about.
A motion from the high window caught her eyes. A small gray kitten had found its way up onto the thin ledge and was walking toward the tomcat. He had stopped grooming himself as the kitten approached, coming rather closer than she thought prudent. The kitten then sat back on its haunches, intently watching the older male, who gazed out over the assembled humans as if he were alone.
Slowly, as if to test the idea, the kitten raised a paw, reaching toward the older cat.
Foolish creature, Maris thought, strangely absorbed by this drama. A sudden swipe from the big cat and the kitten would fly off the narrow ledge and fall some ten feet or so into the room of tables and chairs. It would probably survive. Perhaps with something broken. A painful lesson.
The elder cat turned a sudden, hard look on the kitten, and the tiny paw froze midair.
“Ser High One?” A whispered voice. A figure tentatively sat across from her.
Another Sensitive? Who had this much money — or desperation — to be so fervently seeking mages so far from the capital?
This one stank of poorly washed clothes, smoke, and cheap rotgut. Her face was thin, the cords in her neck raised. Maris was done being polite; a quick touch into her body told Maris that many substances swam in the woman’s blood, that she ate little food, that her kidneys would not serve her much longer.
It tugged at her, this suffering. Sensitives had no choice but to use every means they had to quiet what they could not control. Lacking a mage’s training, their lives would be cacophonous with the etherics of the world, that Iliban could not hear.
“Will you speak with my employers?” She spoke in a hoarse whisper. “They have a contract to offer you.”
Well, she had already said yes once. “I will.”
A quick duck of the head, and the woman slid off the chair and was gone.
Maris returned her attention to the high rafters, to the tomcat and impertinent kitten, to see where the drama stood. But they were both gone. With a disappointed exhale, she returned her attention to her stew, which tasted much better than it looked, and wondered who would show up next.
He arrived the next morning as she sat in the eating room, sipping at a dark and fermented bitter Arun tea, wishing for honey. His gaze swept the room, settled on her.
A tall man, broad shouldered, and wearing clothes nearly as anonymous as her own. She dipped her attention into him to find that he was strong, with a large number of scars. A trained soldier, then, though she could have told this from the way he strode across the room to her.
In Perripur the wealthy and powerful did not send soldiers to talk to mages. But here in Arun, the monarchy and military were tightly entwined, explaining the empire’s insatiable appetite for land.
What will Arunkin not eat? went the Perripin saying, expecting no answer.
He sat. “High One –” he began.
“Marisel,” she said sharply, tired of the game.
“Marisel, then. I won’t waste your time. The palace offers you a contract.”
“Does it indeed? The red, beating heart of Arunkel? Where your king outlaws our very existence?”
At this he tilted his head. “Times change. I intend to see them change further.”
Maris exhaled a short laugh, then sobered, considered this, and realized from his words and demeanor that she was talking to someone from the palace.
An intriguing notion, to see altered the near thousand-year tradition of loudly denouncing magic with one side of the mouth while hiring a mage with the other.
“What sort of contract?”
“To give the monarch the benefit of your excellent vision.”
The monarch? She sat back, surprised. That the Arun king quietly employed mages when he could persuade them to come close, she knew. Gallelon himself had played that game years ago. He had told her about the king’s library one warm night as they sat watching a storm of falling stars. His description had filled her with a kind of lust. She felt it now.
“The library is exquisite, but be careful of the Arunkel monarchy,” Gallelon had added. “The snake bites.”
Rumor held that the old king was ill. Maris had wondered whether his mages had abandoned him.
Was she being recruited to replace them?
“The old monarch or the new?” she asked.
A faint smile crossed his face. “The new.”
In Perripur, state parliaments discussed every issue at length, often until it was far past relevant, producing treaties that covered inches thick sheaves of papers. The Perripin government did not hesitate to hire elder mages to advise and remove deadlocks. Far less often for their magic, though to have a mage handy meant a show of power. A little like having a swordsman as a servant.
“You wish only my advice, Arunkin? I find that hard to believe.”
He spread his hands. “I would be a fool to try to bind you beyond your will. Come to the palace. Let us show you Arunkel hospitality. When we need more than advice, we will ask, and you decide.”
“You have a library.”
He smiled. “Histories going back to Arunkel’s founding and before. Poems from the masters. We have the most extensive collection in the empire. You would be most welcome there.”
Hot baths. Good meals.
A memory of Keyretura’s voice: What are you missing, Marisel?
“I will not wear the black for you,” she said, suddenly annoyed at him, at herself. “I will not be used to put fear into your enemies or set your monarch on the throne. We do no king-making.”
At least they weren’t supposed to. The council of mages had uncompromising penalties for such actions.
She tasted the quickening of the man’s heartbeat, though he hid it well.
“I don’t need your help in that regard, Marisel. The princess will be crowned midsummer, or sooner.”
Maris’s mind, fickle thing, was already in the fabled library, imagining running her fingers across the leather-clad spines of books, velum scrolls, stacks of amardide sheaves. The treasures that must be there. Unique across the world. A sublime opportunity.
The snake bites.
“After your queen is crowned,” she said, compromising with the warnings in her head.
He considered her for a moment. “Allow me to put you on retainer until then,” he said. “Enough that you can stay wherever you like…” With this, his eyes flickered quickly around the room. “And then I will send someone for you, after the coronation.”
Maris had already decided, she realized. To see the inside of the palace, the Jewel of the Empire, and browse its library… irresistible. The contract obligated her to little.
“So be it,” she said.
He held his hand out, palm up. On it was a gold Arunkel souver, king-side showing.
She hesitated. What was she missing?
Hot baths, she reminded herself. Good food.
She put her hand on top of his, palm down, the gold coin between them.
“Our contract is made,” she said. Their hands turned in place, the coin now hers.
After Samnt, she had despaired of caring about anything for some time to come. Now there was something she wanted, and she cherished the thought of it, pushing away the nagging sense that she was, indeed, missing something.