The wicked heroine, p.33
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.33

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  Chapter Fourteen

  The first lunch on the road was an eye-opening experience for Geret. The caravan did not stop at noon. They had a deadline to meet at the port of Yaren Fel, and the caravan masters knew their craft.

  A mounted servant rode up to the fore of the caravan and handed around pairs of large fresh bread slabs that pinched thick, marinated beef slices. Meena and Sanych grinned happily and began eating right away. Geret absent-mindedly thanked the servant and then examined his meal critically, noting the distinct lack of courses and wine.

  He sighed and decided that surely, quest food was as much a part of the quest as seeking the goal. With a smile at his new perspective, he commented to the group at large, “It’s a good thing we’re getting used to roughing it early on.”

  The Dictat members nodded wisely in agreement, making comments around their first bites. Sanych and Meena, however, looked askance at him, then at each other. Geret savored the fresh yeasty bread and the rich marinade that flavored his beef and eyed the ladies. He was glad to see they were looking at each other now, but somehow he felt it was at his expense.

  He finished his large sandwich and washed it down with several large gulps of water from his water skin while enjoying the scenery. The lobeleaf trees were just growing in their new leaves; they passed by copse after copse of them throughout the valley, the soft red buds fairly glowing with promise of life and warmth. Geret grinned. Even spring was excited for the quest.

  The rest of the afternoon was comprised of riding, some occasional riding, and even a bit of additional riding. Geret was no slouch when it came to horsemanship, but it had been a couple of seasons since he’d spent this much time in the saddle without a break. He knew riding horseback all day, every day, would make certain parts of him tender before he adjusted to the routine, so he just grimaced and said nothing. He was incredibly thankful when they pulled into a large grassy area beside the trade road a little early that evening.

  Supper was late due to lack of coordination, but Geret wasn’t thinking about his stomach. He waited until his private tent had been erected, a small white affair with room for a cot and a small table with a washbasin, and his personal trunk. Once he had the canvas walls for privacy, he stepped inside and sat on the cot, pulling the small parchment case from inside his vest and holding it before him. He stared intently at it for a good half a minute, heart pounding.

  If Salvor’s a threat to my family, I want to know now. I’m not waiting until we reach Kirth, Geret thought. He cracked the seal and opened the small case, shaking out a long, rolled note onto his left palm. He set the case down and studied the note for a moment, unrolling the edge an inch or so to determine which end he had. He had a tendency to skip to the end of letters, and he wanted to pace himself with this one, so he dared not unroll it too quickly and jump to something he wasn’t prepared for.

  He had the top end, it turned out. He took a bracing breath, let it out, and began to read:

  To my Nephew, Geret,

  If you are reading this, I assume you are safely away on your quest and out of my jurisdiction. I trust you will hold to your duty and strive your hardest in order to successfully complete this endeavor, even had you not read this letter. But you are reading, for what I have to say must be said. It is only fair that you know why you are truly questing for this Dire Tome in far-off Shanal.

  Your cousin Addan was stricken with something fiendish and incurable when he was eight years old. His healers believe it may be a treacherous poison, and I have bent my will these last dozen years to learn who among the forces and nations surrounding us would dare bring such horror upon a child. To date, I have not found any perpetrators.

  This ailment, whatever its nature, has robbed him of more than physical strength. To put it succinctly, my son is mad, though quietly so. His condition has worsened rapidly in this last year. I fear there is little time left for him. He cannot be my heir in this condition. I have put off this realization too long, in hopes of his recovery, but it is not to be, not without extraordinary help.

  And that is where you come in. I am sending you, Geret, on this quest, so that you may bring back the one book that I have faith may restore my son’s health, according to the old priest’s journal, before he succumbs to his condition completely and is lost to us. It is my hope to use the book to restore his mind and body to him.

  I know you will do right by your cousin, and by me and the whole of Vint. To this end, I bestow upon you the title of Prince of Vint. This title is yours no matter the quest’s outcome, because I have named you my primary heir, in the event that you fail in the quest, and yet survive. I know you have no love of rule, nor politics, so I fear no sabotage by your hand, Geret. Introduce yourself thus to all dignitaries and commoners alike. You represent us all to the world, Prince Geret, and you hold my hope in your hands, come what may.

  May Wisdom speed your path.

  Uncle Beret

  Magister of Vint

  P.S. Please share the bestowing of your title with the Dictat and see that they accept and disseminate this to the caravan and in all their dealings with foreigners. Read from this letter if you must.

  Geret’s jaw hung slack. He wrinkled his forehead and blinked a few times, then reread the letter in its entirety. When he had done so, he sat silently, holding the letter, digesting its contents slowly in his mind.

  Last summer, when his cousin Addan and his uncle had come to visit his father’s castle, and ultimately bring Geret back with them to Highnave, he’d had no notion that his cousin had been anything other than severely exhausted. He’d sat at table one or two nights, made a bit of quiet conversation, and enjoyed his father’s aviary immensely. But, looking back now, Geret realized that the too-long silences in conversation, the haunted gazes out the window, and the simple pleasure of watching tiny, brightly-feathered birds flit about, had actually been pointing to the true nature of Addan’s illness. His uncle had been right; Addan’s madness was quiet.

  Geret felt his eyes warm and prickle with the beginning of tears. He and Addan had great times playing as children, dashing about from garden to garden, shrieking and yelling and outrunning their caretakers. Now, unless he was successful at this quest, Addan would be lost to his madness and die.

  He swallowed a small lump in his throat. His quest now felt harder, more urgent. It was no longer just a game, a frolic. He felt his mind focus as it never had before, not even for the most spectacular prank.

  The Dictat must not know about Addan’s condition, he realized, or else his uncle would have simply come out and told them their true purpose in the quest meetings. Why isn’t he sharing that information with them? They’re his advisory council. If anything warrants their attention, it’s the heir to the Magister’s position. He must have some reason not–

  “Knock knock, princeling. You home?” came Meena’s voice from just outside his tent flap. Geret jumped; he’d been so focused on his thoughts, he hadn’t heard her approach. And “princeling”…Geret wondered if Meena was able to read the future. She’d been calling him that since they’d met.

  He stuffed the note back inside his vest pocket and strode to the tent flap, pulling it open. “I’m here,” he said. He looked down at Meena’s outstretched arm and saw that she’d brought him a large bowl of stew with a carved wooden spoon protruding from it.

  “Hungry enough for more of that rough quest fare yet?” she asked, a small glint of amusement in her eyes.

  “Definitely,” Geret said, taking the bowl from her. He noticed that she held another for herself. “Would you care to join me inside for supper?” he offered.

  “Yes,” she agreed. Geret backed up to allow her entry.

  With the limited height of the tent, which Geret didn’t quite have to slouch under, he was more aware of Meena’s height as well as his own. She was only a hand or so shorter than he was, making her one of the tallest women he’d ever met.

  “I’m afraid I only have the cot; no stools or the li
ke. But I’ll let you pick whichever end you prefer,” he offered her.

  Meena made a quiet sound of amusement in her nose, not bothering to hide a smile as she looked at the cot. She chose the foot end, closer to the tent flap, and sat down. While she scooped a big spoonful of hot stew into her mouth, Geret sat on the other half of the cot and did the same.

  The stew was flavorful and spicy, with healthy-sized chunks of root vegetables and meat bathed in a thick, herbed sauce. Geret was so hungry he ate half of it before remembering his manners.

  “I’m sorry. I invited you in and then gobbled in front of you. You must think I’m Daskan.”

  Meena raised her eyebrows as she licked her spoon. “I’m as hungry as you are.”

  Geret looked at her bowl; it was half-empty as well. “Not one for ceremony, are you?”

  Meena took another bite and talked through her food as she replied, “Nope. Been to enough sheremoniesh to lasht sheveral lifetimesh.” She swallowed. “A couple of them felt like they alone lasted a lifetime.”

  Geret chuckled. “I admit, I’m not up on all your legends like Sanych is. Did you ever do…you know…bad things? That didn’t make it into the stories?”

  The look Meena gave Geret was direct. Her face seemed to alter, though she’d not moved that he could tell. The power of her gaze mesmerized him and terrified him all at once. A word flashed into his mind: anything. This face was capable of absolutely anything. He gulped, tasting the previous bite of his stew on his tongue again.

  Finally Meena spoke, releasing him from her spellbinding gaze and looking toward his small lamp on the table across the tent. “No one is perfect, Geret. Everyone makes mistakes, falters, loses their way.” She took another bite of her stew.

  Geret did as well, feeling chastised. “I’m sorry if I made you remember something you’d rather not,” he offered by way of apology.

  “Little princeling,” Meena returned, her sarcasm back in place, “I doubt there is any single thing in the world that you could make me do.”

  Geret heard the challenge in her words and narrowed his eyes with a slow smile. “Really? I think I could.”

  Meena snorted softly. “Puppy.”

  He took another bite of stew; as soon as he’d pulled his spoon out of his mouth, he flicked it at her, and she caught it deftly by the handle, her reflexes quick as a cat’s. Her eyes glanced at his in triumph.

  “I just made you catch my spoon,” he said, flicking his eyebrows up.

  Meena froze, realizing he’d had no doubt whatsoever about her reflexes. She surprised him by letting out a low, rich laugh that went on for several seconds.

  She handed him his spoon back, handle first, and said, “So you did. That’s what I get for assuming again.” She met his eyes with a much friendlier look than that of moments ago, and added, “I think I’m going to like you, Geret.”

  “Superb. I like me as well,” Geret said, heady with the Shanallar’s attention.

  Meena snorted at his silliness and ate some more stew. “This isn’t bad,” she commented. “Not bad at all.” She poked her tongue through the bits in her mouth, sorting through the flavors of the stew. “Now me, I make a mean snow weasel stew, if I do say so myself.”

  “Snow weasels? The smelly creatures in the mountains, more likely to attack your kneecaps than run away? That sneak right into your camp and steal your food stash? Those snow weasels?” Geret’s voice had risen to a disbelieving note.

  Meena pursed her lips for a moment. “Yup,” she nodded. “Those snow weasels. That’s why my stew is so mean.”

  “How do you catch the things? I hear they fight like…well, you know. They fight like snow weasels.”

  Meena nodded sagely. “That they do.”

  “You’re not going to tell me how you catch them, are you?” Geret said, noting Meena’s reticence.

  Meena looked up. “It’s not hard. The key is to not mind getting hurt, while still avoiding being maimed.”

  Geret related the concept to sword fighting, and understood. “So it’s not a pretty fight, then?” he assumed.

  Meena tilted her head toward him, a slightly impatient look on her face. Talking through another bite of stew, she mumbled, “‘Sh never pretty, prinshling. ‘Lesh you’re dueling for show.”

  Geret was reminded of his duel with Salvor. That had certainly been for show: a means to win back the sword Salvor had stolen.

  Meena noticed his introspective look. “You’ve not killed before, have you?”

  “You mean people?” Geret asked, then realized that he’d just given away the answer. “No,” he confirmed, “I’m more of a taunter. I like them to go away knowing I bested them. There’s no profit in it for me if they die.”

  “This quest will go on long enough, you’ll likely encounter at least one person who won’t want to go away at all, ‘til you’re dead. Best you think on that now.”

  Geret opened his mouth, then shut it without speaking, choosing instead to nod.

  “So,” Meena began, “why were you lurking in here? Everyone else is just whining about their backsides or drooling in the stew.” She scraped the last of the stew from her bowl and ate it, waiting for his response.

  “Well, I just found out my uncle’s made me a prince, and I’ve got to figure out how to inform the Dictat, and–”

  Meena interrupted him with a moderate belch. “Congratulations.”

  Geret blinked at her manners.

  “A belch is considered polite in more countries than I have fingers,” Meena said, somewhat defensively.

  “Oh. We going to any of them?”

  “Yes, more than one.”

  “Superb.”

  Meena sensed he wasn’t going to add anything else; she turned away and began to stand.

  “Wait. Please,” Geret found himself saying. His hand rose toward Meena’s arm, but he dared not actually restrain her.

  Meena turned back to him and waited.

  “I…I really need to know, Meena, about this book we’re looking for,” he said, trying to project authority into his voice.

  Meena’s gaze went cold, yet he could tell it wasn’t because of him; her knowledge of the book, her apparent hatred of it, was palpable.

  “What do you want to know?” she asked him.

  “Can it…can it heal people? Really heal them, of terrible things?”

  Her eyebrows raised tiredly. “Yes. It can.”

  “Really?” Geret felt relief and hope surging in his chest.

  “That is not all it does to those who dare to beg its boons, Geret. Tell me, why do you ask that question, of all the questions you can choose from?”

  Geret looked up into Meena’s eyes, shadowed now as dusk fell outside the tent. The lamp behind her set little bronze highlights afire around the edges of her dark brown hair, and here and there he was sure he saw bright coppery flashes as well. Not sure in the least if he was doing the right thing, he slipped his hand inside his vest pocket and withdrew the note from his uncle.

 
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