The Seer – Snippet 66
But beyond the glinting Yarpin palace dwarfed them all, rising beyond the palace walls. At the gates to the palace grounds they were waved through.
What, she wondered again, was she doing here, atop this fine horse, contracted to the very monarchy she abhorred?
It seemed that while Yarpin had not changed, she herself had. When she was done here, she promised herself, she would go home to Perripur.
Of course, memory waited there as well. Perripin faces swam in her mind’s eye, those she had not been able to save, from her parents to friends to countless strangers. The few who had cursed her across the years were bad enough, but worse yet were the many who should have cursed her but who, instead, praised her with their last breath.
Even working for the Arun monarchy was better than that.
She was escorted through high-ceilinged halls lined with lavish tapestries depicting mining towns joyously celebrating beside Arun soldiers, or tribes expressing of gratitude for Anandynar rule. History was written by those who owned the looms.
And now those she passed were well-fed and well-dressed. None missed limbs or were ill. She felt an ease come over her, and something like self-loathing followed close behind.
At a room with doors higher than anyone could need, with windows that looked out into the gardens of red tulips, stood the man she had met in the Ill Wind, whom she now knew to be the Royal Consort and Lord Commander.
“Marisel al Perripur,” he said, dismissing the scribes and soldiers who filled the room. “On behalf of my queen, Cern esse Arunkel, welcome to Yarpin palace.”
He was impressive in his uniform, the black collar glinting with royal gold, mixed-metal buttons down the front atop rust-colored amardide fabric. Maris realized that she had not truly met him before. These were his colors, not the nondescript clothes he’d worn at their meeting at the Ill Wind. Had he dressed thus in that meeting, would she have agreed to this contract?
“Please,” he said, inviting her to sit at a table with him.
At the center of the table was a bowl of fruit. She picked out a green lilikoi, grown in southern Perripur, far distant. Such wealth.
“Our gratitude, Marisel, for coming to us here.”
So very polite. With a mage, respect first. Reason later.
She had agreed to this obscene contract, she could say. She regretted it now and would return his money and go, she could say.
Instead she bit into the lilikoi, sucking out the pulp through the hole she’d made with her teeth, as she had when she’d been a child. Tart and sweet, it brought her memories of bright, hot summers full of ease and childhood delights. Before Keyretura. “And so I am here,” she said, hearing the weight in her tone. “What do you want of me?”
“What can you do?”
“I have many skills,” she answered, putting the lilikoi aside to pick out a ripe peach. “Among them arithmetics, high-elevation farming, circular harp, and birthing babies. Shall I give you a complete list?”
It smelled marvelous, the peach.
“We can discuss something else, then. News of Perripur, perhaps?”
This was how one caught an animal in a trap, with bait like the fruit she held in her hand. She frowned, put it back on the table. “Are you so badly in need of company that you must hire a mage to find it?”
His smile froze for a moment. “I meant no insult.”
She waved the apology away. “We’ll both be happier if you simply tell me what it is you want of me.”
“I want to know who is loyal to the new queen.”
“Ah. That is not on the list.”
“No? You can’t tell a lie from the truth?”
“No better than someone with good eyes. No better than someone who knows the person well, that’s certain.”
It often played out this way, explaining the limits of her abilities to those who had such high hopes. The impoverished and destitute, for all their misery, asked for simple things. To ease the pain. To live another day.
“It is said that magic can help find magic.”
“Ah, you want something found?”
“Someone. Can you find a person?”
“In a house, perhaps,” she answered.
“Across the empire?”
“That is another matter. It would be like touching each stone in the Sennant river to find the single one made of iron instead of rock.”
“What if the person is a mage?”
Now she was on alert. To be hired to search for another of your kind was never a good sign.
“A Sensitive can find a mage in a small village if you give him time, but he must still know which village to search. Magic isn’t like a blocked sewer that you can find by stink. More like the wind — you see its effects where it ripples the high grasses or bends back the trees. If a mage has done magic somewhere, I may be able to sense it, like a footprint in mud. The mage may be long gone but I could point at where they once stood.”
“So if I were to tell you where someone was, could you” — he considered — “stop them from performing any magic?”
“You want me to fight another mage?” she asked, feeling her body and senses tighten.
Maris tried to hold her anger in check, then wondered why she bothered. She let it course through her and out her hand, slamming her palm against the peach, breaking it open, the hard pit all that remained between herself and the table. Juice oozed around the squashed fruit. “Don’t you study history in that fine library of yours? When mages fight, everyone dies but the mages. How can you make the same mistakes, generation after generation, then — your cities flattened — bemoan your ill-fortune yet do it again? You are idiots, all of you.”
At least there was this advantage to being a mage: she could insult the powerful and merely be, ever so politely, asked to leave. She stood.
“Marisel –” Innel began, standing also. Apology or rebuke, she didn’t care.
“If you want to set mages against each other, find someone else.”
“Good,” Innel said.
“Good?” She glared up at him. “What’s good about it?”
“This is why I asked you to come. To help me understand. To advise. Stay, and I’ll take what you offer.”
Suddenly she saw that he hadn’t been reluctant to push her at all. He’d been probing her to see what she could and would do. She had missed the obvious. She was rusty at these games.
On edge, being here, she admitted to herself. Too much wealth bought with blood.
She could leave. Give aid to those with real need. The injured, the ill, the pregnant. But no; she could not face it again, not so soon.
And she had taken his coin.
Anger drained into weariness. She wondered if he guessed how much she craved this respite. She exhaled, felt herself become subdued. “So be it.”
He smiled at this, the smile of someone who had scored a point. “Join us for the evening meal, Marisel. The queen is –” a small pause. “wary of mages, but she’ll change her mind once she’s met you. Until then, perhaps a bath? A visit to the library? And…” he picked out another ripe peach, held it out to her.
Trap or no, she wanted the fruit. She took it.
The bath was hot, the scented soap lush with Perripin spices — no accident, that. Even so, she made long and delighted use of the luxury.
The peach tasted marvelous.
To her vague disgust, Maris found she had quickly become accustomed to soft beds and splendid food.
And then there was the library.
Innel poured from a cylinder, a stream of pink liquid mingling with steam as it filled a clear glass mug. It was not the spiced, bitter tea Arunkin drank — out of embarrassment for their wealth, went the Perripin joke — but a smoked fruit and bark tea, imported from Perripur, no doubt at some expense. A gesture not lost on her.
“I have some items once owned by the person I am looking for.” On the table between them he put a bundle wrapped in heavy black silk, tied with black cord. He slid it across to her.
She touched it. “You know something about magic, Lord Commander.”
“Less than I might,” he said with a twitch of a smile. “The old king was of the strong opinion that magic brings disaster to all it touches.”
“He was right in that.”
“That seems untrue to me, Marisel. You have prevented a number of disasters these last months.”
At his direction, Maris had been keeping watch on him and the queen and a few others, one of whom was unimportant to palace politics but even so had been attacked five times in five different ways over the months she had been here. The poor man was only a servant, bringing stacks of bedding into the palace from the laundry. Slow attacks, all of them. Plenty of time to warn Innel and have him calmly send soldiers to take care of the matter.
The author has a short story about Innel’s start in the Cohort on the Baen books homepage. Part of the introduction runs “Soniaâ€™s fiction includes fantasy, horror, mainstream, SF, software documentation, and business plans.” I kind of suspected business plans were a bit iffy, but now I realise why have problems with software too! :-)