The Seer – Snippet 65

Chapter Seventeen

Maris wandered the coast and its many harbor towns, spending some of the money that Innel delivered monthly to her, listening to the news of the approaching coronation. When it arrived in midsummer, festivals unfolded across the land, turning into boisterous and inebriated revelries that Maris knew were mere echoes of the extravaganzas occurring in the capital.

It had been over half a century since a monarch had been crowned. Despite her cynicism Maris found herself caught up in the optimism embedded in the celebrations. She wondered if the queen might bring more than a new face to her coins.

But Maris did not enjoy the festivities for long, making camp in a deserted collection of lightly wooded hills at the edge of a beach, sleeping on the dunes. With the rise and fall of the surf, roar of the waves, scent of brine, and cry of gulls, she could feel the tug of the salt water and had very nearly decided to contract as crew and return to the ocean again.

Of course, she already had a contract. With the crown. For which she had taken coin.

She stayed.

She felt the man riding along the beach toward her before she saw him. Young, trim, clean-shaven, his rust-red and black surcoat hemmed with a messenger’s white. Another horse followed along.

He rode up to her. “Marisel dua mage?”

She nodded affirmation, wondering how long he had been searching the countryside and beaches for her. From the way his throat tightened and his heart sped at her nod, she guessed this was the first time he had met one of her kind. No surprise, his reaction, in this land where a loathing for magic was as common as poverty. Odd, she had always thought, when the Shentarat glass plains in her homeland should have served as a more terrifying reminder. Perhaps rumor was more compelling than evidence.

They were beautiful mounts, the horses. Large and brown, happy and healthy. It cheered Maris to draw herself up onto the saddle of this powerful animal that was well cared for and wanted no more from the day than the chance to run and to eat.

“Nalas,” he answered as they rode north, when she asked his name.

“And you are…?” she asked, prompting for more.

“Confused,” he admitted with a rueful smile. At her look, he continued. “A half-year ago I was honor guard to the princess’s intended. His second, I suppose. Now he’s Lord Commander as well as Royal Consort, and all the other things he takes care of. So am I second? To which? I rather doubt I’m second as consort to the princess — the queen,” he quickly corrected, then shrugged. “Things have been a bit confused since the coronation. Forgive me for the lengthy explanation, High One –”

“Don’t call me that.”

He winced and fell silent. “My apologies,” he said at last.

She nodded, the touch of regret at her sharp words tempered by the realization that this was probably why Innel had sent him, to be charming while escorting a potentially touchy mage to the capital. His manner was easy and kind and she found herself relaxing somewhat. Credit to the Lord Commander for thinking ahead.

Her mood soured when they reached the crowded outskirts of the capital, the crowds thick, a morass of struggles and impulses, of maladies and miseries. She felt them pressing in, their ills palpable.

She reached focus down through her horse’s legs and into the earth, borrowing his animal ease, finding some measure of calm in each hoof step. Solidifying her ethereal shield muffled somewhat the increasing splashes of pain and hunger but did not block them out altogether.

Yarpin’s city gates were twisted wrought iron, stretching upward, cumulating in high, sharp pikes, as if to claim even the sky.

What will Arunkel not eat?

When last she had been here, the Grandmother Queen was a handful of years dead and Restarn had finally produced his heir. These events seemed to spark a frenzy in Restarn who had then set in motion another massive Anandynar expansion. As his armies spread across the land, stomping flat tribes and towns and city-states that had previously thought to rule themselves, Maris had gone deep into the countryside. Inspired by those with the temerity to resist Arun rule, she helped the many who needed her, applying skills she had herself only recently come to own.

She found herself at a village deep in disputed territory and advised them on how to resist the avaricious Arun army, only to watch helplessly as the village elders decided they would instead pay the tribute the new rulers demanded, even though it was obvious it would smash them into poverty and starvation. Her warnings fell on deaf ears; they simply refused to fight.

She moved on, giving what she could, but too many needed too much. She could not help them all.

The ocean of suffering Iliban.

When exhaustion finally drove her into retreat, she went back to Perripur, where unification fever had sparked to flame, the confederated states finally willing to put aside their differences to organize an army to against the encroaching Anandynars. A united Perripur would have been undefeatable.

But it never came to pass. Restarn proved too canny to tangle with his southern neighbor, keeping his forces well north of the border states.

She was bitterly disappointed. A conflict with Arun would have taken Perripin attention from domestic squabbles, put it north, where it belonged. But lacking a credible Anandynar threat, the states were content to stay independent and bickering. As long as Restarn did not cross the border, they would not bother to resist him.

While, above the border line, the Anandynar king simply took what he wanted.

As their two horses passed through the gates, people surged out of their way, and they watched those who watched them. Here Maris’s foreign looks brought curiosity; it was Nalas’s uniform that attracted fearful, suspicious glares. The king’s soldiers — now the queen’s — had not been well-liked. That had not changed.

Was Yarpin, she wondered, truly worse than the other Arun cities, like Munasee or Garaya? Or was she letting the disturbing memory of Keyretura color her assessment?

It was worse, she decided: there was a keenness to Yarpin’s heaviness, as if somehow the avarice of the empire burned hottest here, using the potency of human suffering as fuel, producing a dark smoke of agony that spread outward in all directions.

The actual stench was impressive as well, coming from the sewers and the corners of city walls that served as both trash heaps and scavenger piles.

As they passed, a ragged woman stood to watch, one side of her face intact, the other melted, the monarchy’s sigil branded on her face atop where her other eye used to be.

The king’s justice. The queen’s now, Maris supposed. Before she quite realized it she had sent a bit of herself into the woman’s body. Hunger, injury, pain. What had she expected? She withdrew quickly.

At the edge of an alleyway three men crouched in a circle. One threw dice across the stones, his other hand tight around the arm of a small boy. As the dice came to rest he held up the boy’s arm with a triumphant yell, drawing the terrified child deeper into the alleyway, leaving little doubt as to his fate. A sense of sick despair came to her.

She could make it otherwise. Dismount, follow them into the alley. Take the boy away from him. No one could stop her. But would she be anything more than his new captor? She could imagine the look of horror in his eyes as he realized what she was. To release him again only meant he would be back in someone else’s grasp before long. There was no winning that game.

For a moment a man paced them, hopping along on one leg, hand trailing a brick wall for balance. Then he stopped, shook his cloak off to reveal a wrist stump, which he jerked up and toward them. Nalas looked straight ahead as if he had not seen it, though Maris suspected otherwise. The man wouldn’t have dared the gesture, Maris knew, if not for the messenger’s white that meant they were unlikely to stop. Maris had seen Arun soldiers dismount for milder offenses, and the offender had not even limped away.

What had the man done to lose two limbs? Touched an expensive item in the marketplace, perhaps. Or hopped too slowly out of the way of some aristo out for a ride.

Fingers extended, she reached her focus downward below the stones and dirt and basements under the buildings, deep beneath the layers of human remains and debris, farther past all touch of humankind, taking stability from the earth itself, bringing it back into her body and mind to keep the cacophony at bay.

The more of Yarpin she saw, the better she remembered why she didn’t want to be here. It had not changed much since the last time.

As their mounts ascended the steepening main road, eager to reach home, they passed merchant mansions. The lanes to either side widened. First the Lesser Houses, then the Greater Houses — estates of dual-color splendor, towers reaching high, sigils snapping in the ocean breeze.