The wicked heroine, p.85
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.85
 

           Jasmine Giacomo

  ~~~

  Sanych steeled her spine as the enormous, gilded open-air elevator carried her down from Greater Salience, into the dimness of the shaft. The first lurch was always unpleasant, but the queasiness in her stomach had more to do with her emotions than with the descent. It had been four painful days now, and she was beginning to regain her equilibrium in regard to Salvor’s callous treatment of her. She knew she didn’t have to head down to Anjoya’s today, but the hostess had information that might prove helpful in her search for Meena. To Sanych, learning what the long-time Salience resident knew was worth the risk of encountering Salvor.

  The elevator cage jolted slightly at the lower end of its transit, and the operator, a tall young man in a spotless dark blue uniform, tipped his cap to her as he opened the safety cage and let her exit.

  She took a deep breath, letting her eyes adjust to the yellow dimness for a minute. If she could just see Anjoya and return to the library, to the room they had offered her for collation and charting, she would be perfectly happy. She squared her shoulders, wrapped her long scarf more tightly around her neck for warmth, and started toward Anjoya’s residence.

  The hostess was pleased to see her. “Come in, Archivist, and please forgive the mess. My ladies are redoing the walls in a few of my rooms today.”

  Sanych followed her to a smaller room in the back of the house, where, instead of lamplight, the yellow light of the main street ceilings was softly glowing from the edges of the floor and in artful swirls on the walls.

  “What is this, anyway?” Sanych asked, wandering over to a wall.

  Anjoya smiled. “It is a fungus. It grows on the rock, and can be propagated easily, if one knows the technique.”

  “As you do,” Sanych deduced with a smile. “You seem to know many people, Anjoya. I’m hoping you can help me.”

  “I will be most pleased to assist you in any small way,” Anjoya replied. “What do you require?”

  Sanych framed her project in a few sentences and made her request. Anjoya raised her chin in thought, letting her dark eyes play over the light patterns on the opposite wall. “I believe I know a few individuals that you may seek out. I’ll make you a list…but forgive me. You don’t need a list, do you?” Anjoya smiled and gave her five names and where they lived and worked in Greater Salience.

  “Thank you very much,” Sanych said, nodding and smiling.

  “Your friends have told me of Meena, a bit. I do not know how you became separated from her, but I hope you are successful in your search.”

  “She was a friend, and much more. I know she’s out there, and I intend to find her. I did it once before.”

  Anjoya read the determination on the young girl’s face and nodded. “Then if anyone can, it will be you.”

  Anjoya walked Sanych back to her front door, and they bade each other a good day. At the corner of her street, Sanych ran smack into Geret and staggered back, breathing quickly.

  “Hi, Sanych,” he greeted her. “How’s the party life treating you these days? Come for beauty tips from Anjoya?” He grinned.

  Sanych struggled to keep her expression polite. “What did you say to him, Geret?” she finally managed.

  He drew his brows down in confusion. “To whom?”

  “Salvor. What did you say to him? He said he never loved me, that it was all a ploy! What did you say?” she demanded, clenching her fists and glaring up at him. An angry tear began to spill down her cheek.

  “I…” Geret quickly thought back over the last few days. “I don’t remember anything that would have made him do that, Sanych. I’m sorry,” he said slowly.

  She exhaled furiously through her nose. “I see you were both right about each other, then. You’re an air-headed fool, and he’s a two-faced liar. I can’t wait to get out of here and go back home, where I never have to see either of you again!” She bulled past him and stalked down the street.

  Geret remained behind for a moment, absorbing the deeper impact of her words. Then he jogged ahead of her and turned to face her, walking backwards and holding his hands out in a placating gesture. “Hold on a minute. You’re going to need to start from the beginning. This sounds way more important than my Hyndi lessons.”

  Sanych stopped. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she clipped.

  Stung, Geret paused. “What did Salvor do to you?”

  Sanych pursed her lips in annoyance. “I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes not meeting his, “but I’m far too busy. You may have given up on Meena and the quest, but I haven’t, and I have two, possibly three, seas to search. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She brushed past him again.

  “Sanych,” he pleaded, “I care about you.”

  She turned around, glared at him and hissed, “Not a point in your favor right now, Geret.” She stalked off and didn’t turn back, and Geret trekked on to Anjoya’s, not wanting to remain in the street like a fool.

  Halfway through the lesson, Salvor jogged in, his face stormy. After a polite greeting to their teacher, he hissed in Versal, “You could have told me you were leaving the harbor early.”

  “I could’ve,” Geret allowed. “Then you would have been with me when I ran into your lovely girlfriend. Except…I think she might have mentioned something about you being a two-faced liar.”

  “Gentlemen,” Anjoya interrupted, speaking Hyndi. “Let us converse in Hyndi only, please. This is the best way to learn, and so far you have been doing very well.”

  “Fine,” Geret growled, using Hyndi as he looked at Anjoya. “Salvor’s a lying bastard who lost his heart years ago in some inane bet on the outcome of a snail race. Clearly, he hasn’t missed it since.”

  Salvor’s expression slowly hardened, and he looked away and replied, “This from the same mouth that kissed Sanych in full view of the man she loved.”

  Anjoya raised a delicate eyebrow at Geret.

  “At least I actually care about her,” Geret shot back.

  “You little fool of a pretender prince,” Salvor seethed, spinning to glare at him. “How long are you going to be a step behind me? I hope to Wisdom you never take the High Seat of Wisdom, because I guarantee you, I’ll have a hard time pretending that I respect someone who can’t follow the simplest of ploys to its logical conclusion!”

  “That’s funny; after all the other lies you’ve lived, why should that one be so difficult?”

  “Even I have limits, Geret,” Salvor warned, his hazel eyes cold.

  “You’re not the only one. You’re fired. Get out.” Geret stood, crossed his arms and glared down at Salvor.

  He stood up as well, and sneered at the taller, younger man. “You can’t fire me. I don’t work for you.”

  “My lords,” Anjoya’s voice interrupted sharply. “While your argumentative Hyndi seems nearly flawless, I must point out that today’s lesson is about court Hyndi. Polite Hyndi.”

  The two men continued to glare at each other.

  “If you’re unable to continue the lesson today,” she said archly, “then I suggest you come back next time, and in a frame of mind more suited to study.” She gestured to the hallway. “And please tell your friend Gryme that I am thinking of him today.”

  Geret and Salvor both stalked out, remembering only belatedly to bow their thanks to their teacher. Outside in the quiet street, with only the glowing rock ceiling above them, Geret growled and put his hands on his temples.

  “How about we try discussing things this time, like grownups, rather than breaking out into a brawl?” Salvor asked, reverting to Versal and leaning on a carved pillar in front of the residence opposite Anjoya’s.

  “I don’t know; are you mature enough for that, after your little stunt?”

  “That ‘little stunt’, my less-than-observant prince, was for Sanych’s benefit, though I doubt I’ll be able to convince you of that.”

  “Did you actually tell her to her face that you were just using her? That seems pretty cruel, even coming from you.”

  “It was nec
essary, and as I said, I don’t expect you to understand.” Salvor crossed his arms.

  “Folly’s bastard get,” Geret swore, throwing his hands in the air. “Why don’t you try explaining it to me, and see if you can keep from lying about it?”

  “Fine. Here’s the part I think you can handle: I let Sanych shake me off her sandals because it keeps her safer, away from you and me both, and helps me focus on keeping you alive. Having Meena around made me lazy. You attract trouble like no one I’ve ever known, and since we’re headed back to Vint, I thought I could get in a confession and let her adjust to living without us all in one move. She’ll get over her tears soon enough.”

  Geret, for once, kept his mouth shut and mulled that over. Finally he said, “She was distracting you. You actually care for her.”

  “Not the point. If you—”

  “You let her shake you off. You didn’t have to.”

  “It was a ploy, Geret,” Salvor gritted, striding over and glaring at Geret.

  “It started as one, but it ended as something else, didn’t it? You fell for your mark.”

  Salvor’s fist slammed into Geret’s eye socket, and he staggered, seeing blinding showers of red and white stars.

  “That’s for kissing her,” Salvor said, rubbing his knuckles.

  Geret swiped tears from his throbbing eye and looked blearily at Salvor. “Fair enough,” he gasped. “I had a weak moment. That’s why you told her that it was my idea to separate you two.”

  “Probably,” Salvor admitted reluctantly. “It’s a long journey home. I didn’t like the prospect of watching you woo her all the way across the sea.” He glared at Geret. “And don’t tell me you wouldn’t have tried.”

  Geret was silent a moment. Finally he nodded. “Probably,” he echoed. “But what’s to stop–”

  “Hopefully your good sense,” Salvor interrupted. “In case you hadn’t quite caught on, it’s us against everyone else out here. We’re a long way from Vint, and anyone who even knows where it is. We’ll get no mercy out here. The burden of preserving the Magister’s heir is landing squarely on my shoulders. If you drag Sanych into your schemes–and I know you’ll have a few–and endanger her as well as yourself, I reserve the right to pummel your arse the second I’ve saved it. If she comes to harm because of you, be assured I’ll visit it on you tenfold, prince of the realm or no.”

  Geret stepped forward, saying, “You make me sound like I don’t care for anyone but myself. Do you truly think so little of me?”

  “It’s not about you, Geret. Not nearly so much as you think it is.”

  The way Salvor cut his eyes from Geret made the prince squint in interest. “Enlighten me, then,” he said in a mild tone.

  Salvor glanced at him, the momentary bitterness in his eyes startled Geret. “I failed, back in Ha’Lakkon. I knew, when I took that blade to the heart, that it was all for nothing. There were still three more men in the alley, and you were wounded. If it weren’t for Meena, we’d both be rotting by now. Your uncle charged me with a duty, and I failed him!” He stalked around Geret in a half-circle.

  “I failed him too,” Geret added quietly. Salvor turned and faced him. “He gave me this glorious quest to lead, on a simple retrieval mission. We’re only halfway there, and there are only four of us left. We can’t even consider going forward. At the end of the day, that’s on me. So I guess I can relate.” He raised his eyes from the ground and met Salvor’s gaze. “At least Meena gave you a second chance.”

  “I’m not sure I should thank her. Guilt is not a kind companion.” He grinned briefly. “If Sanych can find her a second time–if she’s alive–Meena will give you a second chance also.”

  Geret snorted and scratched his nose. “I guess so. Hadn’t really thought of it like that.”

  They looked at one another for a long moment.

  “How’s your eye?” Salvor asked.

  “Hurts like folly. How’s yours?”

  “My eye’s fine–ow!” He clapped a hand over his eye after Geret struck him, and glared with his good eye.

  “That’s for making her cry,” Geret said coolly, shaking out his fist.

  “Folly,” Salvor swore, wincing. “I suppose I deserve that.”

  “You do. But neither of us want her hurt, so I’ll keep her out of any harebrained schemes I cook up. Whether I stay away from her entirely, well…I’ll leave that up to her.”

  “I probably deserve that too. Don’t forget, though, your heart isn’t yours to give away anymore. Once the Magister declared you a Prince of Vint, he effectively took control of your choice of partners.”

  “Wasn’t really thinking that far ahead,” Geret commented, raising an eyebrow.

  Salvor shook his head. “You should. Always. That’s what a true prince would do.”

  Geret winced at the comment, even though Salvor’s tone was barely acerbic. “Maybe you should be the prince, and I’ll be your bodyguard,” he said.

  Salvor guffawed, and gingerly touched his swelling eye. “No, Geret,” he said, with a few last chuckles, “I’d not be prince of anything if you gave me the deepest desire of my heart. It doesn’t suit me. It doesn’t suit you either, much, but you’ve time to grow into it. If you choose,” he clarified, with a direct look.

  Geret nodded. Even this far from home, he couldn’t completely forget his obligations to his homeland.

  Salvor blinked his swelling eye gently. “You want to go back in for the rest of our lesson?”

  “No, it’s a wash. Let’s come up with a good story to tell Kemsil instead.”

  “About what?”

  “About how I saved you from seventeen Shadow Stalkers, and only got this one black eye,” he grinned, raising his eyebrows.

  Salvor snorted. “Don’t forget to tell him the part where you had one hand tied behind your back.”

  “Right. And it happened in a dark alley.”

  “Geret,” Salvor said, as they slowly made their way across Lesser Salience to their common hall, “we’re underground. They’re all dark alleys.”

  He tsked, looking around. “So they are.”

 
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