– Chapter 2 – Merius

 

Two jacks, one ace, a deuce, and an eight.  I arranged the cards so the jacks were next to each other.  The game had been going on for over an hour, and there seemed no end in sight.  Everyone had full coin pouches tonight–a rare occurrence.  When Selwyn had asked me if I wanted to go to the inn for a game, I had expected it to be a short affair.  We had only four players tonight, less than the usual number, and ale always made someone foolish with his coin.  But tonight, all my companions held their cards close, each hand slower than the last.  I sighed and glanced toward the other end of the common room, where Imogene was pouring ale for a bunch of loud, fishy sailors. 

Imogene wore lots of vagabond bangles up and down her arms, bangles that clinked together when she held a swaying tray of full mugs over her head.  I had kissed her the last time I had been here.  I had written a poem about those clinking bangles slithering like a snake over my neck when she twined her arms around me, a poem which I had promptly burned before Father found it.  Father had forbidden me to write poetry, especially poetry about chasing barmaids.  He wanted me to chase the noble courtesans at court if I had to chase something.  These courtesans were the sort of women he used as his mistresses.  According to him, they were less likely to have the pox than barmaids.  They were also less likely to wear bangles, which was why I had ignored him.  Unless this game ended sometime soon, I wouldn’t be getting close to any bangles tonight, vagabond or otherwise. 

“Anyone raising?” Selwyn asked.

I looked around at my companions.  Selwyn, my kinsman, Gerard of Casian, a red-faced, blustery sort from a minor noble House, brave and loyal as a champion warhorse, and Peregrine the cheat, who met my gaze as he sipped his brandy.  He would never lower himself to drink ale.  I grinned with clenched teeth.  He had just dealt off the bottom of the deck, but I didn’t say a word.  The last time I had fought Peregrine for cheating at cards, my father had almost killed me.  Peregrine was one of his merchant toadies at court, and I was supposed to be diplomatic to my father’s toadies.

I threw a silver piece on the copper pile in the middle of the table.  Maybe losing all my money on this hand would get me out of the game. 

“Merius, what the hell did you do that for?”  Gerard threw down his cards.  “I’m out.”

Selwyn held up his glass for Imogene to fill.  I winked at her, and she smiled before she moved on to the next table.  “She’s a ripe one,” Gerard observed.  “I wouldn’t mind sniffing under her skirts . . .”

“Ask Merius.  He’s been doing some sniffing in that direction of late.”  Selwyn matched my silver piece with one of his own, and Peregrine followed suit.

“So, how does she smell?” Gerard leered.

“‘Like vagabond wine, sweet and wild,'” I quoted my favorite Sirach poem.

“What does that mean?”

“None of your damned affair, that’s what it means.  Go do your own sniffing.”

“That’s the answer of a man who hasn’t been doing enough sniffing to talk about,” Selwyn said.

“That’s the answer of a man who just won your silver,” I retorted, laying my cards down.

“What?”  Selwyn grabbed the cards.  “Don’t sit on your coin, Merius–I’ll have it back by the next hand.”

“Blame Peregrine.  He dealt.”  I glanced across the table.  Peregrine’s eyes were narrow as he examined my cards and then his own.  Then he looked at me, and I smiled like the diplomat my father wanted me to be.  Just because he cheated didn’t mean he won.  Maybe he would quit using the same marked deck every time, the arrogant blackguard.

Selwyn shuffled the deck, dropping the eight of clubs in his ale.  “Saw you on the sea road last night, Peregrine, but you galloped by so fast that I said good evening to your dust.” 

“I had urgent business in Calcors.”

“I understand you had business at the House of Long Marsh as well.”

Peregrine settled back in his chair as he lit his pipe.  “I wish that witch was business.  If she came with a price, I could buy her and be done with it.”  He exhaled a long swirl of smoke.

“Marry her honestly,” Selwyn said, “and she’ll buy you.  Dagmar comes with half of the Long Marsh holdings as a dowry.”

I snorted.  “A bag of gold makes a cold bed, cousin.”

Cards flew across the table in no particular order as Selwyn dealt.  “At least I do my duty instead of mooning after barmaids.”

“Duty is the high, lonely road assigned to those who kiss my father’s boots.  I prefer kissing barmaids.”

“You’re a fool, Merius . . .”

The ten of diamonds flipped face-up when Selwyn tossed it to Gerard, who swore.  “Give me those cards.  You can’t deal worth a damn.”

“Shut up and take the card, or we’ll be here all night,” I said.  “Selwyn wants to do his duty and lose the Long Marsh dowry to us.”

“To hell with the dowry.  It’s the Long Marsh woman I want,” Peregrine said.

Gerard and I looked at each other.  “Selwyn, with all your blather of honor and duty, I can’t believe you’re just going to sit here and let him talk about your betrothed that way,” I said in a low voice.

Selwyn started.  “What, who’s talking about Dagmar?”

“Peregrine, you dolt!”  Gerard slammed his tankard on the table.

“What he just said?  He’s not talking about Dagmar.  He’s talking about Safire.  The only thing you lack being a jackass is the ears.”  Selwyn chuckled.

“Who’s Safire?” I asked.

“Dagmar’s younger sister.”

Peregrine grinned as he picked up his cards.  “The Lady Dagmar is a worthy match, but her earnest charms are not for me.”

“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Safire,” Selwyn said.  “Did you really think Dagmar was an only child?  I would get all the Long Marsh holdings as a dowry then, not just half.”

“What does this Safire look like?” I asked.  “Maybe I’ve met her and don’t remember.”

“You’d remember this one.”  Peregrine added a silver piece to the ante.  “A tiny vixen redhead.”

“With a tongue as wicked as her hair.  It’s no wonder you haven’t met her.  Avernal doesn’t let her out much.  Afraid she’ll use that dagger tongue on the wrong person, I suppose.”  Selwyn glanced glumly at his cards.  “I’m out.”

The tavern door flew open, the sudden draft sweeping away half the candle flames.  Everyone looked up, even the drunken sailors, as my cousin Whitten stumbled in from the night.  His sopping cloak hung limp from his narrow shoulders.  Water dripped from his dark hair down his face, glinting like tears in the shadows. 

“What’s happened?” Selwyn demanded, his cards fluttering to the floor.

“Horse thieves,” Whitten panted.  “In our stables.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up, reaching for my cloak.  “Which direction did they go?”

“I don’t know.” Whitten collapsed on a bench.  “They threw me in the water trough.  I couldn’t see.”

“In our stables?  How the hell did they breach the courtyard gate?”

“The two grooms you hired last month, the brothers . . . I saw them among the thieves.”

I told Selwyn not to hire them–they had the eyes of hungry weasels.  “Where were the other grooms, the stable boys?  Didn’t they help you?”

“Drunk.”

“All of them?  But when Selwyn and I left two hours ago, everything was quiet.”

“I think the knaves put something in the ale.  It tasted odd . . .”

“You had some?”  Selwyn’s tone was sharp.

“Just a taste.  I couldn’t stomach it, the bitter stuff.”

“Damn it, Whitten, never drink with the servants.  Lackwit sot . . .”

“That’s not important now,” I interrupted.  “What we need to do is get the horses back.”

“Summon the magistrate-” Selwyn began.

“The magistrate!  Lemara!”  Gerard grimaced.  “He’s so pickled, he can’t tell the difference between a pretty dock whore and his horse most nights, and you expect him to find your horses?”

I threw my cloak over my shoulders. 

“Where are you off to?” Selwyn asked.

“To get the horses.  We can’t let those bastards sell Silver to some flea-ridden horse trader.”  My favorite mare, Silver had foaled Peregrine’s famous gray stallion Trident as well as my horse Shadowfoot.

“Do you think we should go after them?”

I shrugged.  “Better than staying here all night.”

“That’s easy for you to say–you’re losing.”

“Selwyn, you know Lemara won’t find those horses.  Do you remember that time someone stole a whole flock of Sullay’s sheep?  The thief turned around and sold the sheep to Lemara himself when he was in his cups.”

Selwyn grinned.  “He searched every field this side of Calcors, looking for those damned sheep, and the whole time they were in his own fold.”

“How did he ever get to be magistrate?” Gerard asked.

“His nephew Herrod commands the king’s guard and got him the post.  At least that’s what Father said.  So, who’s with me?” 

With a clattering of benches and coin, they trailed me out of the common room.  At the door, I clasped Imogene’s hand and gave her a silver for the ale.  One dark brow arched as she tucked the coin in her bodice.  As I headed outside, I glanced through the window in time to see her take a seat on a sailor’s lap.  I had known better than to think that she wore her bangles and her smiles just for me, but acid still needled my insides.  Clenching my sword hilt, I strode into the stable where lanterns swayed and flickered in the breeze.

I saddled Shadowfoot; metal clanged against metal as I tightened the girth.  I leapt into the saddle and spurred the horse into a restless canter.  The night was so large and fresh after the stable that he galloped around the trampled mud of the inn yard a few times before I tugged him to a stop.  He neighed impatiently, prancing as the others joined us.

“We’re short a horse,” Selwyn remarked.

I glanced down to see Whitten standing without a mount.  “I ran here from the Hall.  They stole every horse, even lame Ned.”

Peregrine whistled.  “That’s at least twenty horses, with the breadth of the Landers stables.  Their greed evidently eclipsed their wits.”

“Whitten could ride pillion,” Gerard suggested.

Selwyn and I looked at each other.  When Whitten’s father had died a decade before, Whitten had become the official head of the House of Landers.  The title meant little, since Whitten could barely rule himself, much less a forty thousand acre estate with hundreds of tenants who produced countless bushels of grain each harvest.  While my father was at court, Selwyn and I were in charge of the House.  Father would not forgive twenty lost horses, much less drunken servants.  If I sent Whitten back, come morning we’d likely find him passed out with one of the scullery maids. 

“Someone needs to see to the servants,” I said.  “Selwyn, give Whitten your horse.  Set things right at the Hall.”

Nodding, Selwyn dismounted and handed Whitten the reins.  “But . . .” Whitten began.  “I only have my dagger . . .”

“Is it sharp?”

“Well yes, but . . .”

“Then it’s good enough for tonight’s work.  Come on.”  I tightened my knees, and Shadowfoot jumped forward into the dark beyond the circle of lanterns.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The hollow pounding of hooves on the turf and an occasional clink of metal were the only sounds.  Even Gerard’s tongue had stilled as we approached the sea road.  There shone a pale luminescence from the stars and moon far overhead, coldly silvering Shadowfoot’s ears and mane. 

A sudden wind swept away the stillness.  I tugged on the reins and paused as the wind passed, leaving a salty tang in the air.  As soon as I smelled the salt, I heard the muffled rush of the sea, and I realized that the sound had been there a long time, in the background, but I had not noticed it.

“Merius,” Gerard whispered fiercely.  “Where are we going?  We’ve been riding for a good two hours, and my rear is sore.”

I gestured towards the sea.  “The cliffs.”

“Why the cliffs?” Peregrine asked.

“It’s the only hidden way.  They wouldn’t dare take the horses to Calcors.  It’s too close to Landers Hall.”

“Why not go west, into the hills?”

“Still too risky.  Too many watching eyes.  Silver’s known throughout the province as a Landers horse.  They won’t go that way, not if they have any sense.  No, I wager we’ll find them on the shore under the cliffs, making their way south to the Syren docks and a smuggler’s ship.  As long as the tide’s out, they’ve got a clear path that can’t be seen from the sea road.”

Gerard yawned and shifted himself on his saddle.  “You play cards like a cheat and think like a horse thief, Landers.  You better be right.”

For a half hour or more, we plodded along the cliffs, searching for a path.  Whitten almost went over the edge when his horse stepped on a loose stone.  After that, we dismounted and looked on foot.  Finally, Peregrine found a narrow track cut into the side of the cliff, just wide enough for a horse and rider.

When we’d picked our way down to the shore, I silently pointed at the fresh circles of hoof prints in the wet sand, dozens of them.  Gerard grunted, and Peregrine nodded, but Whitten just looked cold and miserable.  I reached over and lightly punched his wet shoulder, wishing I had a flask of brandy to offer him.  He fought well enough when he had a few shots warming his blood, better than Selwyn actually.  Sober, he was a bundle of nerves who stabbed at shadows and thought he was bleeding to death at the slightest nick. 

“All right,” I directed Shadowfoot around and started back up the path to the sea road.  “Come on.”

“Wait, what are you doing?” Gerard demanded.  “We found the tracks.  Aren’t we going to follow these bastards and get them?”

Peregrine grinned.  “Ambush, my friend.  Ambush.”

“Exactly.  We can’t ambush them if we’re following them, Gerard.”

“How are we going to ambush them?” Whitten spoke.  “We can’t ambush them if they’re in front of us.”

“No, but they won’t be in front of us for long if we take the sea road.  We have four horses, a nice, dry road of packed dirt.  They have over twenty horses, and they’re trying to lead them through the surf in spots.  Who do you think is going to travel the fastest?  Come on.”

Shadowfoot began to gallop as soon as we reached the top of the cliffs, his hooves thundering.  There was a full moon, and it lit everything deep blue and silver.  My sword jostled at my side, and I felt the hilt of it, running my fingers over the elaborate scrolls of the Landers insignia. 

After we rode hard for an hour, I veered sharply to the left, back towards the sea.  There was a way down here if we could just find it.  After a few minutes of trotting by the cliff edge, I spotted the twisted, ancient cedar that marked the old ones’ path to the shore.  Thousands of years ago, they had worshipped their gods here, chiseling a wide track in the cliff down to caves where they had offered their firstborn babies to the sea.  Why the gods demanded such a sacrifice, no one knew for certain.  The old ones had supposedly been a strong race, a few of the texts I read even hinting that they possessed unnatural abilities that made them impervious to disease.  Perhaps the sacrifice of their firstborn was a way to curb their numbers and ward off famine.  If the wind was just right, one could still hear the wails of the drowning children in the caves.  Sometimes when I had come here with Selwyn, Whitten, and Gerard and explored the caves, I had heard the wails and wondered.  I was my father’s only child.  Would he have offered me to the waves or hidden me away?  I wanted to think he would have hidden me away, but Father was a stickler for protocol.  I spurred Shadowfoot forward on to the sand, clutching my sword hilt so hard the Landers insignia left a scrolled, painful L on my palm.

We paced all around the shore but saw no tracks but ours.  “We passed them,” Whitten said in wonderment.

We rode back north until we came to an outcropping of rock that jutted towards the sea, leaving only a narrow strip of shore.  Not only did the rock hide us from view, but they would have to go around it single file.  I dismounted and tossed my reins to Peregrine.  I climbed up the rock and looked over the edge.  Just cliffs and sand and the endless swish-swash of waves.  A tinge of gray silhouetted the horizon where dawn began its long creep across the sky.  I motioned to Gerard, who had the sharpest eyes.  Swearing, he joined me on the rock.  “See anything?”

“No . . . wait.”  He peered forward.  “There’s something moving way up there where the coast curves back around.”

“Is it them?”

“Give me a moment.”  He squinted.  “I think it is.  They’re moving this way.  There’s a lot of dark shapes, a few glints of metal like harness.  Or swords.  Hell, Merius, what are we in for?”

“You can go back if you want.  They’re not your horses.  Though if you stay, you’ll get Silver’s next colt.”

Gerard waved an impatient hand.  “I don’t want a colt.  Got too many damned horses now to feed.  I’m just saying we might be outnumbered.”

“Let’s wait and see.”

“If we wait too long, retreat will no longer exist.”

“True.  But why would warriors want to retreat?”

Gerard snorted.  “You’re calling Whitten a warrior?” 

“No, but you and I and Peregrine are.  And even Whitten’s pretty good with a dagger.  Remember that fight in the tavern with the sailors?”

Gerard clapped me on the back.  “All right, Landers.”

We slithered down to the bottom of the rock.  I landed on the sand with a soft thump.  “They’re coming,” I told Peregrine and Whitten.  “Now, I don’t want any killing if we can help it.  We want live horses, not dead men.”

Gerard spat on a stone.  “Before we take prisoners, do we have any rope to tie them?”

I reached in my saddlebag, pulled out a length of hemp, and tossed it to him.  “There’s some in Selwyn’s saddlebags as well.  We were using it earlier to round up stray cattle in the north pasture.”

“I suppose we’re set then.  All we can do now is wait.”

“I want Silver’s next foal for this one, Merius,” Peregrine muttered.

I shot him a narrow look, recalling last spring when Gerard and I had saved him from a nasty street brawl.  “You’ll get it.  Hell, I bet she’ll be so grateful to be rescued that she’ll go into season right here for you, which is more than I can say for most of the girls you’ve chased.”

Gerard guffawed, and even Whitten managed a snicker.  Peregrine’s gaze was cold, and I cursed myself.  My mouth would get me in trouble yet, even after all my father’s training. 

Whitten held the horses near the path in case we had to mount in a hurry.  The rest of us crouched in the shadow of the cliffs, time slowed to a trickle as we waited in silence, our swords and daggers drawn.  When the first man rounded the edge of the rock, Gerard grabbed him and put a blade to his neck.  He yelled, and the next one around the rock leapt at me, his sword tearing a hole in my sleeve. 

I jumped back, and he dove towards me again.  I brought my dagger up and blocked his sword.  He dodged to the side, anticipating my lunge forward after the parry.  I spun around, and our swords rang in a series of fast, deafening blows.  He got in one hit, a nasty cut to my shoulder, and I swore, charging forward.  He jumped aside, but too slowly, for I struck him on his sword arm, slashing him from elbow to wrist.  The tip of my blade caught in the hilt of his, and he let go of his sword.  I stepped on the blade before he could pick it up.  He ran for the cliffs, clutching his arm, and I started after him.   

Suddenly the cold metal of a blade tickled my throat.  Someone clutched my shoulder.  I plunged my dagger into the man’s leg, and he let me go, gasping.  I spun around.  It was one of the weasel-faced grooms.  He leaned against a rock, grasping his upper leg.  Blood dripped between his pale fingers.  He panted, his breath wheezing.  Then he lunged forward.  I cut his arm with my sword, and he bellowed, dropping his weapon on the rocks.  I grabbed his shoulder and put my knife to his throat.

I dragged the groom over to Whitten.  “Tie him!” I yelled.  “Tie him now!”

Whitten hesitated, gaping.  “Here.”  I reached for the rope myself, cuffing the groom when he tried to bite me.  Finally Whitten moved.  He grabbed the rope and bound the man’s arms. 

I raced away, searching for the man who had cut my shoulder.  I paused in the shadow of the cliffs.  The roar of the surf in the background dulled any sound he might make to give himself away.  There were caves here, pockets of darkness where he could hide and ambush me.

I crept along the edge of the shadows.  My eyes roved in every direction, my ears tensed for the slightest noise.  There was a ripple in the darkness, the echo of a loose pebble the instant before he jumped out a mere yard in front of me.  If I hadn’t heard the pebble, his sword would have pierced my side.  I sprang back, our blades glancing off each other as he carved a swath in the air. 

My shoulder a throbbing reminder, I attacked fiercely this time, forcing him back down to the open beach.  His arm injured, he didn’t parry fast enough, and my sword tip caught him in the stomach.  He fell on the sand with a groan, blood flowing out of him in a black pool that vanished in the surf, only to reappear again when the wave retreated.  I swallowed and backed away.  Did men bleed faster at night?  It seemed so, watching him.

There came the muffled clamp of boots behind me, and I spun around.  My sword met the second groom’s sword with a clang.  We swung at each other for a minute or two, but he had not the skill of his dead comrade.  He took a careless cut at my shoulder, and I ducked away, bringing my blade back around in a giant arc that disarmed him.  His sword flipped into the air, a dizzying swirl of silver that landed several yards away.  I knocked him senseless with my hilt and left him for Whitten to bind. 

Peregrine emerged from the shadows suddenly, his sword darting to and fro as he fought with the last of the thieves.  The thief was a brute with a thick cutlass, several inches taller than me, and even though he wielded it with a quick skill, Peregrine’s rapier seemed an ill match to the sturdier blade.  I raised my sword to help him, but he cut me off, trying to disarm the man with a jab to the wrist.  “You arrogant ass,” I muttered.  “You’ll never . . .”

At that instant, Gerard leapt on the thief from behind, and he and Peregrine soon had the man disarmed and tied up.  “Thank you, but I could have taken care of him myself,” Peregrine said.

“Like hell,” Gerard sputtered.       

“Looks like you killed one, Merius,” Peregrine remarked, effectively ignoring Gerard and distracting him at the same time.

I nodded, my stomach tightening.  “I didn’t mean to, but he came after me.”

“Self-defense,” Gerard said.  “Lemara can’t be too upset about that.”  He jerked his prisoner up and forced him over to the huddled group by the horses.  Counting the one I’d killed, there were seven thieves in all.  We bound their wounds and our own as best we could, and then we loaded them on to mounts.  Whitten and Gerard rounded up the horses for the trip back to Landers Hall.   Peregrine and I escorted the prisoners to Lemara and his men in Calcors.  Lemara was pleased with our work, probably because it meant less for him.  Sometime, much later that day, I fell into bed after a long bath.  If I had dreams, they were dark ones.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 “You were supposed to return to court two nights ago, Merius.”  My father stood looking out the window, his hands behind his back.

“Would you rather I let a band of thieves make off with our best horses?”

“That’s what magistrates are for.”

I stood up and began pacing the length of the library rug, measuring my strides so that my feet fit in the pattern of golden scallops.  My toes were the perfect width to cover those ridiculous flourishes . . . 

“Father, you know Lemara is too drunk most times to find his own horse, much less anyone else’s.  We never would have retrieved those horses if we’d relied on him.”

He turned his head and looked at me.  His eyes were the gray of night shadows on snow.  “To hell with the horses, Merius.  That was a foolhardy thing to do, taking only three men with you to face unknown numbers.  Besides, when I tell you to return to court, you return to court.”

“But you told me to watch the estate as well.  The horses are part of the estate . . .”

“By the time the horses were stolen, you should have been on the road to court.  You should have left here at the latest by mid-afternoon, so what were you doing at the tavern at ten that evening?”

“Playing cards.”

“Were you short of coin?  Did you have to gamble your last copper to buy oats for your horse because he was too weak with hunger to travel?”  His sarcasm cut like a whip.

“I had plenty of coin.”

“So you disregarded my summons?”

“I forgot.”

“You what?”

“I forgot about court.”

“You forgot a summons you’d received that very morning?”

“You send a lot of summons, Father.”

“I see,” he said, his gaze returning to the window.  “My unreasonable requests for you to return when I ask and be punctual about it have overwhelmed you.  My apologies, Merius–I forgot that you’re four and unable to decipher a clock face.”

“I didn’t get your summons until noon.  I was going to leave within the hour.  Then some cattle broke out of the north pasture, and Selwyn and I had to help round them up.  The bull knocked Lem Rivers off his horse and tried to gore him .  .  .”

“Why did you have to help the Rivers?  The north pasture is theirs as long as they pay their rent, and I assume those loose cattle were theirs as well.  Hence, it’s their responsibility to round them up, not yours.”

“They’re tenants, Father.  Our tenants.”

“Ah, you had no choice but to disrespect your father and charge off on a reckless mission to save a few lost cattle.”

“I wasn’t disrespecting you.  I just forgot . . .”

“Lower your voice.  A man who has to shout has already lost the argument.  Do you remember nothing from court?”

“Always court, always damned court.”

“Stop pacing,” he hissed, his eyes never once leaving the window.  Only when I stopped, my hands clenched in my pockets, did he turn and face me, his gaze expressionless.  “Yesterday morning, the council met with the Marennese ambassador.  Do you know what we discussed?”

I pondered this a moment, my eyes skipping to the map of the known world hanging over the fireplace mantel.  As always, my gaze first lighted on the lonely green blotch that marked Cormalen, cut off from the main continent by four inches of bright blue sea teeming with the artist’s fanciful sea monsters.  I had been so disappointed when I had accompanied Father at the age of ten on my first sea voyage and seen no monsters like the ones on the map.  Four inches of sea on the map translated to a week long voyage to Sarneth, our mother nation on the mainland–the Landers had been among the first Sarneth adventurers to subdue the old ones and settle Cormalen.  Sarneth was a far larger green blotch than Cormalen–endless verdant plains and forests, presumably.  Marenna, a grayish slash of mountains and metal and precious stone mines between Sarneth and the SerVerin Empire, the huge tan-colored desert that consumed the southernmost third of the map.  Tiny oases, camels, and dancing girls dotted the desert–I would have enjoyed following this map artist around.  He’d had some adventures, with all the sea monsters and dancing girls.  I looked between the hard gray of Marenna and the bright green of Cormalen and immediately understood why the Marennese ambassador was in Cormalen instead of his home country.  Cormalen didn’t have dancing girls but at least we had trees and growing things, unlike Marenna.  All they grew there were rocks, apparently . . .

“Merius?”  Father’s voice sliced into my thoughts.  “Did you hear me?”

Oh hell–he hated it when I had one of my trances, as he called them.  “You had a council with the Marennese ambassador,” I repeated what he had said, stalling for time as I frantically ran though the implications of a discussion with the Marennese ambassador.  Cormalen and Marenna were bonded by a royal marriage between our princess and their crown prince but little else. 

“The Marennese ambassador offered us half the mines in Marenna if we would take Prince Segar’s harpy sister back,” I spoke my first thought aloud, desperate to say something, anything to fill the heavy silence.

“I’m ill of your jests,” Father snapped.  “If you’d been at the council as you should have, you would have known that he begged for the assistance of our king’s guard to quell the SerVerin slave traders on Marenna’s southern border.”

“What did the king say?”

“He hemmed and hawed and brayed like a royal ass.  His Majesty’s son Segar and I argued to send a small contingent of our best fighters to let the SerVerin Empire feel the nip of our teeth, and His Majesty bleated about that for a bit.”

“What about Herrod?”

“He had the court treasury spent on war ships and swords before the Marennese man even finished his plea.”

I smiled.  “Always, Herrod itches to go to war.  What did the council decide?”

“They didn’t.  There weren’t enough council members there to take a vote.  I had to explain afterwards to Prince Segar that my wayward son couldn’t be bothered to attend council that day.  If you ever disgrace me like that again-”

“Father . . .”

“Remember, I can disinherit you, Merius.”

“It was just one council, Father.”

He clenched the window sill.  “It’s never just one council.  When are you going to understand that?  Details, Merius.  Details are the stuff of statecraft.  And appearance.  Appearance is everything.  Snub a prince by missing his council, and a year later, he gives the ambassadorship that could have been yours to someone less heedless.  And you’re so damn heedless.  Heedless and quixotic.  A stolen horse, a tenant with a stubbed toe, an ace up some gambler’s sleeve, and you’re off on a damned quest.  You’ll never have any career to speak of if I don’t rein you in.”

“If I had returned to court and let those horses get stolen, you would be lecturing me about mishandling the estate,” I said quietly.  “What can I do to please you, Father?”

He ignored me.  “I should stay here until Friday.  Avernal and I need to decide which parcels of Long Marsh land we receive under the betrothal.  I trust you balanced the ledgers while you were here?”

“Yes, sir.  Only the Declans still owe us from last year’s harvest.”

“Good.  Then I want you gone within the hour.  And attend the court ball tomorrow, all week if you can.  You’re almost twenty-one.  You need to make a suitable match soon.”  He walked out of the library.  I stood there for a few minutes, my hands braced on the mantel, staring at the ashes in the grate.  His words appearance is everything hammered into my brain over and over again.  I grabbed a glass vase off the mantel and hurled it into the grate.  I straightened as it shattered, my headache fading.

  

© Copyright 2009 K. Nilsen




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