The wicked heroine, p.15
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.15

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Five

  Geret had been ill for four days. He lay exhausted in his bed, the rumpled blue duvet pushed down to his waist. He couldn’t stand it covering his bare chest; it made him feel as if he might burst into flames. At least the bone-deep aches had finally passed, and the horrible hot-and-cold chills had relaxed their grip on his poor body. He’d finally gotten a good night’s sleep last night, and he felt more rested than he had since he got sick.

  He turned his dark eyes to the shuttered windows. A thin crack of early daylight shone through, and he could tell it was another cloudy, dreary midwinter day outside. Just as well he was ill, then. He was a sunshine lover. Too many clouds for too long and it got a bit depressing. The round valley he was living in wasn’t helping; its particular shape and placement among the mountains and plains around it meant that it was often filled with low clouds that oozed in and then stayed, unable to find their way back out.

  Geret sighed and closed his eyes, pushing sweat-darkened, matted hair off his forehead. There was one more benefit to being confined to his rooms; he’d not had to answer a sudden summons from Imorlar in days. The man was working him like a slave, having him investigate all sorts of disjointed rumors and track grain shipments by poring over hours’ worth of boring caravan manifests. What was any of it good for? He certainly didn’t know, but there had definitely been no more exciting duels to retrieve stolen swords.

  Maybe Imorlar is punishing me.

  That such a thought only occurred to him now was a mark of Imorlar’s subtlety. How wrong Geret had been about him! As to the seneschal’s specific motives for employing Geret, the young man could fathom a few distinct possibilities, the worst of which was that Imorlar was actually trying to undermine the Magister in some way. Geret had been watching for that, but he hadn’t seen any evidence of it so far. If he did, he knew he’d have to go straight to his uncle and confess what he’d been up to; no matter how fun all these clandestine excursions had been, Geret knew he valued the stability of his uncle’s rule more.

  A knock on his door interrupted his fevered reverie. His bodyservant, Nimbel, opened the door and brought in a tray of breakfast.

  “Good morning, my lord,” he offered cautiously. “How are you faring this morning?”

  “I’m a bit better, Nim. I finally slept.” Geret sat up slowly in his bed and ran long fingers through his hair. “It’s still blazingly hot in here, though,” he added, pointing to his bare chest.

  Nimbel smiled and brought over the covered tray. “I’m glad my lord is recovering his sense of humor; they say that’s the first to return.” He set the tray down on the duvet, its propped legs holding it above Geret’s lap.

  “Well, I guess I might live, then. Let’s see, what’s today’s death-door special?” Geret asked, lifting off the linen cover and revealing a porcelain bowl of thin gruel packed with dried fruit bits, a small pot of tea, and a warm wheat roll, fresh from the oven. He flicked his eyebrows up tiredly. “Again.”

  “Enjoy, my lord. Just ring for me when you’re through.” Nimbel bowed his way back out and closed the door behind him.

  Grumbling to himself about the smug look on Nimbel’s face, which meant the man had had a breakfast that actually included some meat, Geret picked up his wide spoon and began eating. Finally finding himself with a full appetite, he ate everything on his tray and drank all the fresh tea as well.

  As he poured the last of it into his small cup, though, something clinked inside. It sounded like metal against the stoneware pot. Frowning with interest, Geret removed the pot’s lid and looked inside. A tiny metal cylinder rested on the bottom, among the bits of tea leaves that had gotten through the straining process.

  It must be from Imorlar, Geret realized, pouting in thought. Either that, or another young lady at court is slipping me a love note.

  Geret removed the tiny cylinder and unscrewed its threaded top. He shook out a miniscule rolled square of paper, tea-stained on one end.

  Your uncle will call on you today. Your cousin has worsened. Do whatever the Magister asks of you.

  A deep, strong jab of dread drove downward into Geret’s intestines, and he found himself taking shallow, quick breaths through his nose.

  Addan’s worsened.

  Setting the tray roughly aside, Geret slid off the high feather mattress and onto the woven blue Kirthan rug that covered the stone tiles next to his bed. He pulled sharply on the summoning cord. Nimbel answered the bell’s ring, entering and bowing.

  “I believe I need a bath,” Geret said.

  “Right away, my lord,” Nimbel answered. He summoned the watermaids, and they prepared the bath in Geret’s round porcelain tub in the next room. The bodyservant saw Geret’s fever-flush and slow pace as he walked to the bathing room, and offered to assist Geret into the tub, but the prince waved him away and clambered in under his own power. He found the water lukewarm, and thanked Nimbel for his foresight.

  While he scrubbed days of sickness off his back with a sea sponge on a long handle, Geret thought over his cousin Addan’s situation. The Magister’s son was rarely seen in public anymore; it was widely rumored that he was chronically ill. But Geret had suspected something else was really going on, since the day the Magister and his son had visited Geret’s father’s castle last summer. Something worse than simply being ill.

  Geret was a bit nervous about formally meeting his uncle; he’d lived here at his uncle’s palace for two seasons now, and he’d only met with the man on an individual basis a handful of times.

  What his uncle had been preoccupied with all these weeks, Geret wasn’t sure. He’d been so busy working for Imorlar that he had never found an opportunity to go spy out his uncle’s motives for bringing him here and then ignoring him. Maybe now he’d find out, about his cousin, about his uncle, and if he was very lucky, maybe even about Imorlar’s true motives.

  Nimbel combed and pomaded Geret’s hair while he sat and fiddled with his formal maroon cravat. He’d never gotten the hang of them, but somehow his fingers managed to get a proper knot this time.

  “Good morning,” came a deep, energetic voice from the entryway to Geret’s suite. “Anyone at home today?” Geret and Nimbel looked up to see the Magister smiling at them.

  “Yes, Uncle Beret. Please, come in.” Geret’s rarely used manners surfaced as he looked over at the tall ruler of Vint. His uncle’s hair was only a shade or two lighter than his own, and his high forehead and piercing dark brown eyes gave him a distinct air of intelligence.

  “I was hoping you’d come out, actually, if you have no other plans,” Beret said, gesturing at Geret’s selection of fine clothing. “There’s something I need you to consider.”

  “I’m free,” Geret said. He stood and walked over to his uncle. Beret Branbrey, His Wisdom The Lord High Magister of Vint, was not a man to keep waiting.

  “The Dictat is in special council, Geret,” his uncle said, as they entered the main hallway. “I believe you’ll find the topic of interest as well.”

  But Geret felt a stab of alarm. The Dictat was the Magister’s advisory council; what would they want with him? He suddenly wondered if the “worsening” his cousin was afflicted with was fatal. His uncle had no other children, and the closest blood relative in the country at the moment was…himself.

  Oh Wisdom, not that. I’m so not ready to be any kind of heir to anything!

  Gulping down his worry, Geret managed a relatively calm tone of voice when he asked, “What’s going on, Uncle?”

  Beret Branbrey pursed his lips as they walked, considering how to answer the question. Finally, he responded, “Geret, I’d first like to apologize to you for not spending much time with you aside from meals since I brought you over from your father’s lands. I fully intended to take time with you myself, but I’ve been very caught up in this project of mine, and I’m afraid I’ve put many things on hold, including you, and for that I’m sorry.”

  “It’s no problem, Uncle. I’ve been kept very bus
y and fulfilled. I hardly have a moment to sleep.” Geret barely refrained from adding unless I’m so ill I can’t get out of bed. He didn’t want his uncle distracted by sympathy; he might send Geret back to his chambers to rest some more, and Geret was determined now to find out what was going on.

  “Well that’s good; an industrious mind can accomplish many good things. And I believe I might have something for your industrious mind to take a crack at.”

  The tone of his uncle’s voice made Geret yearn to hear the next sentence. It was the same way that Imorlar teased him with a new assignment. When his uncle didn’t say anything immediately after that, Geret prompted, “And what is it?”

  But his uncle merely smiled maddeningly, a near echo of Geret’s wicked grin, and said, “Just a bit of patience, lad, and all will be revealed.”

  Geret nearly writhed into ribbons of excited frustration on the spot, but managed to hold himself together with a bit of dignity until they reached a large rectangular room at the end of one of the hallways he’d rarely used. A pair of guards saluted the Magister, and one of them opened the door for the new arrivals to enter.

  Inside, the members of the Dictat stood around an enormous circular table that had a strange, lumpy surface. Charts and maps and books littered other surfaces around the edges of the room. A few of the men were pointing to, and discussing, some feature of the enormous tabletop, and others were walking back and forth to other areas to look at or retrieve some chart or book. Whatever they were all doing, they were very intent on it, and none of them even noticed the Magister’s entrance until he stepped up to the edge of the table, with Geret by his left side.

  That was when Geret noticed that the table was actually an enormous map of some kind. He squinted, not immediately recognizing anything on it.

  “Beret,” a red-headed man said in surprise. “Forgive me, sire, I didn’t even hear you come in.”

  The Magister smiled easily. “It’s all right, Braal. I’m glad to see you all so involved this morning. Geret is here, so let me sum briefly for him first, and then I’ll let you answer more of his questions.”

  “Of course, sire.” Runcan went back to his reading of a book, glancing occasionally at the enormous map.

  Geret followed his uncle over to a far corner of the room, where they sat on padded, brown-upholstered chairs that had a good view of the damp winter hills and cloudy sky out the window. The smell of old, musty books and dry parchments filled the air, and there were several of each on the nearby tables.

  “Geret,” began his uncle, looking down and folding his fingers together on his lap distractedly, “you may have guessed that all is not well with your cousin Addan.” Here he paused, waiting for a response.

  Geret opened his mouth, moistening his palate, and then shut it again, merely nodding. He saw the pain in his uncle’s eyes and began to fear the worst.

  “Addan is not well, it’s true. And of late, his condition has worsened. I had planned for him to accompany several of the Dictat on a long journey; I had hoped that it would stimulate Addan to recover, but it’s become clear to me in the last few days that Addan will not be able to make the journey at all. I ask that you consider taking his place.”

  “Me?” Geret was surprised and relieved all at once. His cousin wasn’t dying, and he wasn’t being asked to inherit anything. Suddenly everything seemed brighter and livelier. Geret used the time it took to take and release a deep breath to appreciate his relief. “Where was he going to go?”

  “Halfway around the world. It’ll be many seasons before you can return. Are you interested?”

  Many seasons, halfway around the world! Geret’s imagination kicked into overdrive. All the glacier monsters, sea serpents and wind demons his heart could ever long for, here in the adventure of a lifetime, handed to him on a golden platter. His throat closed tight as he tried to contain his rapidly-expanding elation.

  And then his cynicism kicked in, deflating him, and he asked, “What’s the catch?”

  “That eager to get away, Geret? I’d thought that being away from your homeland for so long was the catch,” his uncle said, laughing.

  Geret grinned. “Sorry, Uncle. My father’s traveled abroad my whole life, and I never got to go. I’d love to get out and travel, but if it was a journey just for Addan’s health, why does it still need to happen at all?”

  “You’re quick, Geret. I appreciate that.” Beret cleared his throat. “The catch, then, as you call it, is that there’s more to this journey than just the scenery. I’ll need you to be in charge of a retrieval expedition.”

  “Retrieval of what?” Geret had a hard time imagining that his uncle, or anyone from Vint for that matter, had accidentally dropped something halfway around the world, and now needed someone to go back and get it for them.

  “A mystical artifact,” Beret said, with a mysterious tone. “Two years ago, I came into possession of the last remaining copy of a journal written by a priest who lived far to the west. In it, he mentioned a strange and wonderful book, capable of bestowing great power upon the reader. It can bring blessings to an entire land: riches, prosperity, health–anything your heart desires. Now, I’ve got most of that already, but my people can always use more, and I’m interested enough in trying to find this mystical book that I’m creating an expedition to retrieve it. I’d guess the Temple of Knowledge would do anything to get their hands on such a book as well, since collecting books is part of their calling. They’ve got one of their journeymen on her Archivist quest regarding this book right now; when she returns in a few weeks, I’ll be most interested in what she has to tell us, and I believe we’ll have no trouble sending her along with you as an advisor. In fact, she’ll likely insist on accompanying you, provided she completes her quest.”

  Geret envisioned a plump, nearsighted woman haranguing him with a finger, demanding that she get to go on the expedition, and that her seven chests of notes must come as well. He grimaced; the image reminded him of the librarian at his father’s castle.

  His uncle continued, “Four of the Dictat will be going as well; they’ll serve you as a council for expedition affairs. They’ll document the expenditures and coordinate the purchasing of supplies, and they’ll also oversee the collection of exotic specimens you might encounter along the journey.”

  Geret let out an amused cough. “So what do you need me for, exactly? It sounds like they’ve got it all pretty well covered.”

  “You’ll be representing Vint to all you meet, Geret. I’ll require you to be on your best behavior.”

  Geret wasn’t sure he possessed that variety. “Yes, Uncle.”

  “The Dictat members will advise you about protocol as you travel; we’ve only got sketchy information, so far, on the lands and peoples at the further reaches of our maps, but we’ll take what we can, and we’ll do our best. I’m sure that we’ll have a rather sharp learning curve in some areas, so we’ll need to be flexible.”

  “Uncle,” Geret broke in, “it sounds like you’re coming with us.”

  Beret laughed. “It does, doesn’t it? I’ve been planning this expedition for many seasons; it’s become my obsession. But you must be the one to go, not I, and not Addan.” The Magister paused and licked his lips. “Make me proud, son. Bring back the book.”

  Geret nodded immediately, a small frown of concentration creasing his brow. “I will, Uncle. I give you my solemn oath. If the book can be brought back, it’ll be in my hands.”

  Beret seemed to slump a little with relief, and a small smile creased his face. “Excellent. Very good. Now, let’s go pester the Dictat with the myriad questions I’m sure you have about the journey.”

  Over the next several hours, Geret forgot all about being sick; a new kind of fever was overtaking him.

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