The wicked heroine, p.57
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.57

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  Part of Sanych’s mind spent the rest of their time in the city trying to decide if this qualified as her first kiss, or if the shy peck one of the stable boys had given her back at the Temple still counted. The rest of her mind was in a happy daze, and the world seemed brighter than it had mere hours ago.

  The sky darkened, and they ambled back down toward the sea. Gentle breezes touched Sanych’s hair, bringing the sound of a fireburst, and she looked to the center of the open square they were edging past. A fire breather atop a short platform was performing for a growing crowd. The woman’s long dark hair was slicked back into a fat swirl atop her head, and her scanty outfit’s brass bobs gleamed and glinted in the light of the burning wand she carried. As Sanych paused to watch, the woman passed the wand in front of her lips and blew. A burst of flame that somehow resembled an eagle in flight spread into the air, remaining a moment longer than seemed natural. The crowd cheered and tossed coins into the performer’s small basket.

  Salvor distracted her by nibbling on her fingertips, and they continued on their way, but Sanych continued to puzzle over the woman’s performance. She’d had no vial of flammable liquid, and had seemed to shape the flame. Had she missed something, a trick the woman had done, or was there something more to it?

  It’s magic, a voice whispered inside her head.

  But I don’t believe in magic, she replied.

  Yes, you do. You believe in Meena.

  A strange tingle shot through her, and she grinned. She looked over her shoulder in time to see the fire breather exude a swirling dragon of flame.

  Evening brought them back to the ship, where Geret, Armala, Runcan and Sengril had been trying to understand the local language in order to locate and buy up as many replacement supplies as they could find in the docks section and surrounding markets. It wasn’t easy. Meena hadn’t been around to help all day.

  She didn’t show up for the supper meal aboard ship, either, and when Geret worried aloud that she might be in some sort of difficulty, Sanych laughed merrily.

  “Geret, trust me, if Meena were in some difficulty in Ha’Lakkon, there would be fires and explosions–”

  A low rumble from Heren Garil Sa occurred at that moment, startling Sanych, and the others chuckled at the look on her face.

  “Maybe she’s battling the volcano,” Salvor teased, eyes alight.

  “I wouldn’t put it past her,” Sanych answered. “Although, heat’s not her forte.”

  “What do you mean?” Sengril asked, prompting Sanych to tell the ice-storm story, emphasizing how Meena could hibernate in freezing temperatures, but did not tolerate being warmed quickly.

  “Fascinating,” Runcan murmured. “She’s a fascinating woman.”

  “As long as she gets us to Shanal, I don’t care if she’s the most boring woman on the planet,” Armala said, and the other Counts laughed.

  Finished with their meal, everyone began heading for the stairs that led down to the berth deck. Sanych smiled and asked Geret if he had a moment; she had found something she wanted him to see. Geret, against his will, glanced at Salvor. The young nobleman averted his eyes, but not before Geret read a mixture of smugness and disdain in his hazel gaze.

  “Sure, Sanych,” Geret said, more loudly than he needed to.

  Salvor hesitated, but any intentions to eavesdrop were frustrated by Count Sengril, who drew him aside, murmuring earnestly in his ear. Geret caught a final, unreadable glance from the impetuous young lord before he turned and followed the Counts below, leaving the prince behind with Sanych.

  Sanych remained in the aisle and began a short recitation of what she’d learned that day in the city. “Come with me,” she segued, “there’s a tapestry I found on the berth deck that I finally understand; you’ll see!” She headed off without looking back to see if he was following. Geret shook his head and grinned, then traipsed after Sanych. Anything to put off the evening’s drudgery of going over the quest’s account books.

  Sanych trotted down the steps and headed away from their rooms until she came to a small lounge, currently unoccupied.

  “See this tapestry?” She pointed across the room to a depiction of a volcano erupting, its lava nourishing the toothspice plants, distinguishable even in woven form by their arrowhead leaves.

  “Yes; what about it?” Geret frowned at the linen illustration.

  “The lava, see, is ‘watering’ the toothspice. The Minister of Agriculture told me there’s something in the soil here that makes the plant grow. If only I had thought to get a sample!”

  “You think, if you took some of the soil from Ha’Hril home to Vint, you could actually grow the toothspice?” Geret asked, skeptical.

  “Absolutely,” Sanych said. “I’m sure it would need a solarium, but the soil is the key!”

  “Key, to a lock no one could pick…” Geret mused. Then his expression cleared. “Of course! Toothspice is the exclusive product of Ha’Hril. So far. If we could set up a small solarium farm, we could get the corner on the mainland market for toothspice. We’d be raking in the gipp!”

  “What? No! I mean, I’ve solved the mystery of the toothspice. I know the answer now.”

  “But what to do with that answer, that’s up to the rulers of Vint,” Geret said, preening.

  Sanych put her hands on her hips. “That’s not what I intended.”

  “But the Temple of Knowledge exists to aid the Magister. One day, you’ll be one of the Masters of the Temple, and you’ll serve my cousin Addan.” A shadow crossed Geret’s face as he was reminded of his purpose on this quest. “Then we’ll see what we can do with the toothspice, Archivist,” he said, recovering his equilibrium.

  “Good luck getting the soil from them now; they know that I know,” huffed Sanych, turning and heading for the corridor.

  Geret realized she was upset with his grand scheme. He caught up with her at the corridor’s edge. He was about to speak when he saw Salvor in the distance. The man looked over his shoulder, away from them, as if making sure he was not being followed. He was dressed in simple dark greys and had a large floppy hat on his head. He reached the hatch and slipped down the gangplank, out of sight.

  Geret realized that Sanych had stopped and watched as well. He turned to her. “Where’s he off to? Didn’t you two spend all day in the city?”

  “We did,” Sanych replied, watching the now-empty hatch with a fatuous grin. Then she frowned. “I can’t imagine where he’s going, without me.”

  Geret found himself annoyed by her attitude. “Maybe he’s going to go join a street gang.” He saw Sanych’s dark look and cleared his throat. “Uh, let me escort you back to your room, Archivist,” he said, propelling her ahead of him. He walked with her to her door and bid her a good evening. Then, as soon as her door was shut, he bolted for his own room down the hall. He changed his clothing as quickly as he could, strapped on his sword, grabbed a light cape, and pelted down the corridor for the hatch.

  Between his distrust of the nobleman and the way Sanych mooned after him, Geret was determined to find out what Salvor was up to, even if it killed him.

  The sailors on watch at the base of the gangplank were of no help to Geret as to where Salvor had headed, since the last large crates of supplies were cluttering the great dock, and dockworkers and deckhands were working and jostling everywhere. Geret trotted up the dock and entered the streets of the city. He wished now that he’d pestered Sanych for details of where they’d gone, and whether Salvor had wanted to go anywhere in particular. He tucked that thought away for the next time he followed someone who’d spent the day with a girl with perfect recall.

  Geret practically ran through the streets, ignoring the Hrillians who tried to sell him things or chastised him for jostling them in his rush. Once he reached the lower gates to the city proper, he caught a glimpse of Salvor’s floppy hat from a distance and thanked Wisdom for his own height. He pushed through the busy night square, lit by dozens of tall poles supporting steaming yellow lamps that co
ntained some mysterious form of light source, trying to keep an eye on that hat.

  Salvor did not suspect he was being followed. He walked at an easy pace and didn’t look around him, except at street corners, as if trying to remember where he’d been earlier. Geret angled himself so that he was behind the multi-level planters whenever Salvor approached another corner.

  Once, Salvor seemed to get lost up a steeply sloping road, and he turned around suddenly and retraced his steps back down. Geret dodged quickly into a damp, dirt-floored alley and walked for several seconds, until he was sure Salvor had passed him by. He returned to the street and continued trailing, at a more discreet distance this time.

  Eventually Salvor reached a small night market and headed for a business whose door opened directly into the market’s edge. As he stepped inside, Geret slowed, calculating his next move. He lifted his hood and pulled his cape a bit tighter around him, then sidled over to a gap between two of the buildings edging the market area, ensuring him a clear view of Salvor’s exit.

  Not two minutes later, the young nobleman came back out, and Geret remained still as he strode past not three paces away. Once Salvor was around the corner, Geret slid back into the market’s main walkway and entered the building, lowering his hood.

  The inside of the small business consisted of a rectangular room built of ash bricks, a front and back door, a single window, and several dark wooden cabinets and countertops. The light in the shop was poor, emanating from two of the steaming lamps like Geret had seen throughout the city. He couldn’t even tell what sort of business he had entered, being unfamiliar with the Hrillian script on the door.

  A greasy man with dark, curly hair sat at the long, low counter, tucking a thick envelope into a mail bag. He looked up as Geret entered.

  “You like-a mail message also?” the man asked in broken Versal, after giving Geret a once-over that convinced him his newest patron was also from the east.

  Geret shook his head. “No. I want to buy that message,” he said, pointing at the mail bag. The clerk’s bushy eyebrows lowered in confusion. Geret removed his money bag and shook out a whole handful of gipp. “For that message, and any instructions for it.”

  The man’s eyes widened and darted between the glittering coins and Geret’s face. With a small sigh of regret, he said, “Sorry, sir. Cannot do for that price. Extra instructions for crate very ‘spensive.” The man tapped a low wooden box with his sandal. “Heavy. Delivery boys want extra when they drop it off after noon meal today. Say they pull a muscle.”

  Geret felt a shiver of ice shoot down his spine. What is Salvor doing? Who’s the letter for? Does it have to do with the quest, or some issue back home? What’s in the box that’s so expensive, and why is he paying for it here, secretly? He frowned at the crate. Maybe the letter will tell me what’s inside.

  “All right then. Just let me read the letter, and you can keep the gipp.” Geret belatedly reasoned that if Salvor was reporting to his father about the disasters that had happened on Geret’s watch, then it would be better for Geret if the letter was delivered undamaged.

  The clerk practically leaped to his feet, handing Geret the letter with one hand and scraping the gipp from his palm with the other.

  “But you stay here, sir!” the man protested. “Message must deliver. My job!” Geret waved absently to the clerk and took the letter closer to one of the steaming lights. He examined the envelope. It was stamped with Salvor’s personal wax seal, the symbol of a hunting fox.

  Geret pursed his lips. The hiss of the lamp caught his attention, and he reached up a hand to feel its emission. It was warm, with a hint of moisture. He held the envelope above the lamp until the buff-colored wax softened, then wiggled it loose with the edge of his dagger.

  He set the envelope on the edge of the counter and carefully began to unfold the letter within. Something brushed against his skin, falling from the letter. Geret looked down to see a long black hair resting against the back of his thumb. He held still and picked the hair off, setting it completely inside the envelope for later, then opened the letter.

  The first word took him completely by surprise.

  Imorlar,

  Greetings from Ha’Hril, fair city of ash, where we have detoured for supplies. Our caravan rejects have likely returned home, cursing Geret’s name. Traversing the sea is rather boring; however, our departure from Yaren Fel was not. May I suggest we offer the sultan a more favorable trade rate for a season, if that is not already being done? If he survived the infighting, his gratitude will doubtless prove useful one day.

  Geret is determined to follow this quest to the end, the fool. He does not see it for what it is. Apparently your assignments hindered rather than helped, as I surmised. You owe me a bottle of your best brandy, and I fully plan to collect when we eventually get home from this absurd journey.

  Dense as he is, the “prince” does not grasp my true purpose on this quest, and remains just as ignorant of certain others’ purposes as well. Too bad for him. If it is to be spelled out to him, I believe it will require a large, blunt object. I truly fear for Vint if he is ever allowed to take the High Seat of Wisdom.

  I will continue to perform my task, distasteful though it is. The Archivist, to my surprise, has surpassed even my high expectations for her. I believe her future with us can be arranged, given time and opportunity.

  The usual safety precautions, as always, are at the back of my mind.

  ST

  Geret nearly crumpled the note in rage. He stood still, breath hissing through his teeth, for nearly a minute. Thoughts whirled rapidly through his head, and the mysterious crate and its unknown contents were forgotten.

  Imorlar, who had recruited him, was also in league with Salvor. Salvor’s father, Halvor Thelios, had suddenly abandoned the quest to stay at home. Pieces of an enormous puzzle flitted past his mind’s eye. Where did they fit?

  Imorlar’s first task to Geret had pitted him against Salvor. Were they both testing him? His loyalty to his uncle? And then, all that lurking about in storerooms and scribners’ file rooms, chasing statistics. Had that been busywork to keep him out of the way? Out of whose way, though?

  Geret realized he was still standing in a mail depot in Ha’Lakkon, not back in the Magister’s palace in Vint. He focused on the letter in his hand, swallowed, and read it a few more times, memorizing it. Then he folded it up, replacing the hair from where it had fallen–safety precautions at the back of my mind, indeed–and tucked it into the envelope. Warming the wax with the lamp’s heat again, he gently tapped it down, sealing it firmly, and returned it to the clerk. Without a word, ignoring the man’s bow and word of thanks, Geret spun and strode from the small building.

  Ideas began blending in his head, and he felt a plausible, yet horrific, concept begin to form: Imorlar, the Magister’s Seneschal, was in league with Halvor, his son, and who knew who else, in a plot to wrest control of the nation from the Magister. With Geret away, his uncle and his ill cousin Addan were fending for themselves against a ravening horde of greedy, power-hungry collaborators.

  Fiery rage burst inside Geret’s chest, and he began running. Salvor couldn’t be far ahead. To be fair, he’d give the man one last chance to explain himself. But Geret knew how it would end. He and Salvor would have one last duel. And this one would be by Geret’s rules.

 
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