The wicked heroine, p.24
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.24

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Eight

  Geret’s next few weeks forced him to be busier than he’d ever been in his life--busier than he’d been while planning to redistribute his father’s ice blocks, busier even than when Imorlar had had him wandering about town on nocturnal excursions of the clandestine type. He consulted nearly daily–and sometimes all day–with his uncle and the Dictat over a wide variety of topics, all pertaining to the expedition: what to bring, what to wear, what to learn, and which languages and monies would be required where. The list went on and on, and only over time did Geret finally get a marginal picture in his head of how this journey would pass: slowly, filled with bureaucracy, and devoid of any actual adventure whatsoever.

  It was a crushing thought. Geret took hope from one thought of his own, though: he was in charge of the expedition, not the Dictat. He wanted to do his uncle proud, but if the monotony got too intense, Geret simply assumed he would have the power to change the routine to prevent the entire expedition from dying of boredom.

  Adding to the workload of trying to catch up mentally to the point of readiness the Dictat were at in regard to the expedition, Imorlar required certain new feats from Geret after hours. He had readily admitted to Geret that the note in the teapot had been from him. He’d gotten wind of Addan’s being deemed officially unable to travel the day before, and knew the Magister would ask Geret to take his place.

  When Geret had asked him why it was so important that he go on this expedition, Imorlar did not give him a full reply at the time. He had only said that certain facts needed to be investigated thoroughly, and loyalties and ties would likely be tested on the journey. Geret needed to be present to observe them.

  To Geret, this had sounded like Imorlar wanted him to spy on the Dictat, but he hadn’t said so at the time. Geret was quite adept at keeping his own counsel, especially when watching and waiting might reveal more potential benefit than if he spoke up. He was curious to see what Imorlar was after specifically, so he decided to bend the portion of his will that wasn’t engaged in readying for this expedition toward trying to piece together the big picture that his tasks for Imorlar created.

  Toward that end, he’d paid special attention to the four Counts that were accompanying him on the expedition: Braal Runcan, Halvor Thelios, Rhist Armala, and Stervan Sengril.

  As the weeks had passed, Geret got to know the four Counts better, and he’d categorized them for quicker reference inside his head.

  Count Runcan was ostensibly the leader of the Dictat, although there was no such official position. He was a slim, redheaded man with light eyes; fair, courteous to all, and a bit distant, he was constantly distracted by what he called “fascinating tidbits of information!” Geret also noticed that Runcan seemed slightly intimidated by Count Sengril.

  Sengril himself was tall, dark of hair and eye, and possessed hooded eyes that made him appear constantly brooding. He was direct with his opinions–of which he had many–quick to pace about the room, full of energy and motivation, and very interested in creating trade for exotics from the far-off lands they encountered.

  Even though Geret saw Salvor’s father nearly daily, the grey-bearded Count had made no mention of the encounter between Geret and his son, which relieved Geret quite a bit. It seemed Salvor hadn’t told his father about the duel at all, at least not in any complaining sort of way. Salvor might be a law-breaker, but he was a savvy one. Count Thelios was still slender for his age, with blue eyes; he was the quietest of the entire Dictat, and watched and listened intently when the others spoke. Geret was very frustrated that he couldn’t get a good read on Thelios’ intentions or loyalties, as he never seemed to express them. He would be one to watch on this expedition, for sure.

  Armala, on the other hand, made it quite clear where he stood. The short, suave Count, blond and grey-eyed, argued over one small point or another nearly daily, with either the Magister or Runcan. Always very politely of course, but to Geret’s eyes it came across as divisive. Geret wasn’t sure if he was trying to undermine the expedition itself, or if he was making a power play within the Dictat, but either way, Geret intended to keep his eyes on him as well.

  After dealing with the exhausting daily litany of expedition facts he had to learn, and the mind-numbing intricacies of interpersonal relations among the Dictat, Geret did find pleasure in sitting on his bed at night, perusing a small map or book borrowed from the Quest Room, as they’d dubbed it, and learning a few fun facts on his own about a new stop on their journey. He would lie down afterward, exhausted, close his eyes and imagine far-away sights, exotic, graceful women, gravity-defying architecture, and new palate-stimulating foods just waiting for him to discover. For about three minutes. Then he’d fall asleep.

  He certainly liked his version of the journey better than the one the Dictat planned for him.

  The last week before departure, it became nearly impossible for Geret to concentrate on anything aside from his own rising excitement. The orange-veiled women and spicily-sauced kebab meats of his nighttime imaginings called to him. The cool shade of leather umbrellas the size of his bed bade him rest from desert heat, and the exciting thrill of chancing upon a sea serpent in turquoise shallows made his heart beat faster; he could nearly smell the salt sea.

  Outside the palace, down the hill, at the lower end of Highnave, where the wide trade road slipped out of the valley, the first leg of the expedition–the horse caravan–was making ready. Servants by the dozens bustled around like bees at a hive, packing, rearranging, arguing over which important passenger’s belongings were more important than any other’s, and jumping to complete any task the caravan masters asked of them.

  Geret had been down there every morning this week, absorbing the excitement like a thirsty sponge plunged into heady wine; it invigorated every particle of his being, and made him a bit drunk with the possibilities that lay ahead of him.

  It was all finally becoming real.

  The caravan masters treated him deferentially and asked his opinion on several placements of items, scheduling and such. Geret answered them politely, generally agreeing with whatever they had already arranged, no doubt ingratiating himself unwittingly to them. But it was hard for Geret to focus on such mundane matters, when adventure and exploration and treasure hunting awaited.

  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that anyone as thoroughly excited as he was should never be put in charge of an operation of this magnitude. It was the same part of his mind that told him he shouldn’t play pranks; Geret ignored this part of himself as a general rule. It had no sense of fun whatsoever.

  When only four days remained until the equinox, Count Thelios dropped a nasty surprise on the Quest Room.

  “I’m afraid I will be unable to accompany the expedition as I have planned,” he stated calmly, as everyone gathered together that morning around the map table.

  Even the Magister looked surprised. “Halvor, what do you mean? You’ve been planning this with me from the start; you’ve been one of the quest’s strongest proponents. What has happened at this last possible moment to change your mind?”

  Halvor Thelios stared at the Magister for fully ten seconds before replying. “I have some serious issues I dare not leave unattended for so long, Magister. I beg you give me leave to remain here.”

  Geret watched his uncle blink twice and remain silent himself for a time. Being careful not to let his emotions show on his face, Geret glanced around the table at all nine of the Dictat. The looks he saw clearly indicated to him that something was afoot. Didn’t his uncle see it?

  “Certainly, Halvor. But provision for one of your household has been made with the caravan; surely you would like to appoint a proxy.”

  Thelios mulled it over for a few seconds. “I certainly wouldn’t want all this planning to go to waste. I’ll appoint my son Salvor to take my place. He won’t have the knowledge and preparation to be part of the domestic council we’ve prepared for Geret, but he is well-traveled, has a good eye for appra
isal, and is also rather handy with a sword.” Geret was sure that Count Thelios was purposely avoiding looking at him when he said that. “I’m sure he’ll make a fine companion for Geret and a strong addition to the expedition.”

  Geret began to feel a dark cloud blowing over his bright and beautiful fantasy expedition. If Salvor came, they’d be in close quarters for weeks, crossing lands by caravan, and it would be even worse when they reached their chartered ship. Geret really began to regret his brash decision to humiliate the older nobleman in public during their duel for the stolen sword.

  But that was not the only twist to Geret’s day. Bedtime found Geret reading a small book on a land called Hynd; they had the most fascinating traditions there, and Geret stayed up later than usual to read a bit more about them. A knock on the door, echoing a bit in the small foyer attached to his rooms, startled him out of his mental picturing of women sweet and ripe as plums and truths being carried about in pockets over the heart.

  Nimbel stumbled over to open it, having fallen asleep on his pallet in the side room already, and bowed sleepily but respectfully to the Magister himself.

  “Uncle!” Geret blurted, standing up and hurriedly straightening his nightclothes.

  The Magister thanked Nimbel and told him to get back to his sleep, then stepped over to greet his nephew.

  “I’m sorry to visit with no notice like this, Geret,” the Magister began.

  “It’s no trouble.” Geret noticed lines of concern on his uncle’s face. “What’s on your mind, Uncle?”

  The Magister merely pressed his lips together tightly and held out a small cylindrical parchment case, capped in bronze and sealed with wax, imprinted with the Magister’s personal seal. Geret took it; it wasn’t even as long as his hand.

  “Do not open this until you are safely on your way, Geret. Until you’ve reached Kirth at the earliest. It is for your eyes only. Once you’ve read it, burn it. Do you understand me?”

  Geret knew what it must contain: some sort of information regarding the Thelios family. “I understand perfectly.”

  The Magister smiled and rested a hand on Geret’s shoulder. “Thank you, Geret, for this and for many other things. Not least of which is accepting my invitation to come and live here. You’ve been a strong asset to me, and I want you to know that. It’ll be . . . a very long time before I see you again, once you leave.”

  “Yes, it will. But don’t worry, Uncle. I’ll get that treasure book for you, or die trying.”

  The Magister’s eyes flared wider for a moment in warning. “Be careful what you wish for, Geret lad. This book is terribly important to me, it’s true, but it’s not worth your life.” Geret heard a strange emphasis on ‘your’. “Promise me also that you won’t get so caught up in adventuring across the globe that you put yourself in unnecessary danger.”

  Geret nodded hesitantly. “Of course, Uncle. I’ll be careful with myself, I promise. After all, I’m the only nephew you’ve got.” He grinned rakishly, but the Magister only nodded thoughtfully and bade him good night, leaving Geret feeling a bit childish.

  He looked down at the small parchment case in his hand. Suddenly he wasn’t entirely sure that it had to do with the Thelios family anymore. But what else would his uncle want to warn him about, secretly like this? And why must he wait to open it until the caravan had reached Kirth?

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