A Stranger’s Blood Chapter Twelve

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Chapter Twelve: Consultations and Calculations

Some days after, as I drank my ale in the Yellow Rose Tavern, a man came in, and though  plainly dressed, in garb that had none of the richness of his former red velvet robes, I recognized him. Obvious that his purpose in entering was not trivial. He made some pretense of looking around even of being intrigued to see me, but as he headed in my direction I knew I was his  reason for coming to this place. Though the timbered room held nearly forty customers, buzzing with their voices and the sounds of eating, he came straight to me in the alcove.

“Corpsmaster Ti, ” he said with respect, his serious brown face difficult to read in that dim lit place. I removed my feet from the other chair and sat up, lifting my tankard slightly in greeting.

Grassmaster took the chair in answer to my gesture. He did not dust it first with his hand, which I thought worthy of mark. He might be incredibly wealthy in the City, but he had common sense.

“We meet,” he said.

“We meet,” I agreed. I drank my nut-brown ale with pleasure. Grassmaster glanced at the crumbs upon my wooden trencher. Simple brown bread and cheese with a few wedges of turnip and withered apple. But the cheese had been of the best, and when the innkeeper laid it before me, I had thanked him with surprise, letting him know that such an offering would never be taken for granted. I didn’t want to grow accustomed to such indulgences. However I suspected that the more I showed my discomfort with these attentions the more what I did would be marked and remembered. So I tried to contain my unease, and cover it with some semblance of grace until  public memory faded.

“I had intended to invite you to share a meal,” he said, “with a friend tonight.”

“You checked the duty roster,” I said. “You knew I was free.”

“Yes.”

“I might enjoy the company, even if I have already eaten.”

“I hope so,” he said. “Will you come with me?”

I’d paid my fee, but I left a dac for the server under my empty tankard. We departed the warmth of the tavern with its heavy smells of boiled cabbage, spilled ale and cinnamon, but I felt uneasily how many marked our going.

“You have little secrecy in your life any more,” Grassmaster noted, moving with long easy strides a half-pace before me. As we exited the tavern, two large civilians with the manner of soldiers fell into place flanking him.

“I thought all the military were Firsted to the King,” I said, nodding at them.

“They are, of course,” he said, his smile mischievous. “These are just my friends, Cama and Glinka.”

I could not restrain my own rather grim smile in return, and followed him as he climbed the streets that led to the Highlands. In a little while he made for the large house on Iris Street that I knew belonged to Quillmaster, and we were admitted by liveried servants. I noted that they wore tunics the hue of her green eyes, and was amused by the conceit.

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The Burgmasters are a relatively small group. They are the wealthiest citizens in our kingdom, and they control most commerce of the land. They have servants by the dozen, and some of these were won away from the Wall before their First Oaths could be given. So while there is a law that none but the king can command military might, this is a conceit. While the Burgmasters obey discretion in the parading of their forces, their possession of trained men will not be disputed. However, any Burgmaster can be put aside by the King’s fiat; if it were not so the King would have no real power.

My own family had been of a lesser class. We had not hung our walls with d’masq’, or wooden paintings, nor had our ceilings set with mosaic tiles, and we had commanded a mere half dozen servants. Quillmaster’s home had all these things, resonating with greens and turquoise to bemuse the eye, and servants who each seemed to have no more than one task each to perfect. Now I smelled foods rich with liquors and cream, elaborately spiced with nutmegs and prickly ash and kaffir. An unaccustomed stomach revolts at too high a table, and I was grateful that my belly was already satisfied.

Quillmaster had her son at her side, a tall and slender man in grave contrast to her worldly and positive authority. She bowed her head to me. I returned the courtesy, as equal greets equal, and I saw it tickled her although she made no comment.

“Grassmaster,” she said to my companion, “I thank you. Please, we will observe no formality; that is the last desire I have for this evening. Take your seats and what foods appeal. We shall have no order of courses. It is conversation that I want.”

“I apologize to the house,” I said. “I have already eaten, but if you would honor me with conversation, of that dish I would gladly partake.”

Quillmaster and Grassmaster

Quillson laughed aloud.

“I remember your father and your mother too,” Quillmaster said, “You do not need to prove that you had your behavior beaten into you by a good tutor.”

“I wondered if you might remember them,” I answered. “I can recall that twice when I was a child you honored our house at dinner. I wanted hair like yours, warm as candlelight.”

“Child,” she said, “Perhaps it is you I should have sent my son to court as wife.”

“Master Mell is the better of the two of us,” I responded, and waited until she had settled herself in her chair before I took my own. “Better in temper, better in grace, warmer in beauty, and her manners outdo my rusty imitation.”

“You make me less sure of that with every word.”

“Not for long,” I said. “Quillmaster, your control of the hearing was a work of art, but will you tell me why you wanted this result? You would have pleased many, and not least the leader of your own church to have dealt with me as criminal and ended the problem entirely.”

“The leader of my own church?” she echoed me with a quirk of her thick eyebrow. “One does many things for form, Corpsmaster, though I believe your maneuvers serve a better ultimate purpose than do ours.”

Grassmaster was smiling as he tilted his wineglass and observed the glitter of reflected candlelight.

“You comfort me,” I said, meaning anything but, and Grassmaster chuckled.

“I have no wish to play games with a woman so uninterested in such courtesies,” Quillmaster said. It seemed strange to me to be called a woman, but I spared no attention for the thought then. It only came back to me some time later, set in the memory of that rich glittering room.

“The truth is we cannot afford to lose you now. You seem to be very good at what you do, you have held your position for some seven years despite being such a young appointee to the Corpsmastership. I certainly have seen many Corpsmasters come and go; some lasting less than a year.

“The recent past events at first vexed me. Vexed us. However, they also contained the potential to be used to an end. To lose you because you were stupid or hapless enough to be drawn into Thane Gehir’s use seemed wasteful. In consultation, some of this City chose to press your case to a Hearing as quickly as possible, before evidence could be organized more fully or even fabricated. We hoped also to move public perception to see you as both admirable and a possible focus for public affection.

“I have paid little attention to the doings of the Wall,” Quillmaster said, “but I know this. Movements in the North compellingly suggest to me the preparation of a great invasion to sweep down and encompass our land. We need to make your position powerful before that event. We simply don’t have time to train another Corpsmaster of the Wall. You can make for us a tolerable hero.”

She had taken very little food onto her own plate, I noted, and now, ignoring both wine and food, she considered me with an intensity both disturbing and flattering.

“Why do you think the Burgmasters made so little quarrel over your measures to control the spread of the great pox? Few of us really believed in your pox, you realize, and your solutions were inconvenient to say the least. You moved with scant proof in hand, and no King or army has ever been allowed to take such power over the streets of the City. We chose to support what you demanded, we merchants and bankers and even a part of the Innerlanders. We want no change in the lines of command now. The force of our military must be at its height. Its mind must be undivided. Your conduct in this Inquiry has reassured us as to your character, your healing has made you dear to the people, and I believe we now have an unprecedented solidarity to support the great war to come.”

I lifted my wineglass, for her message had dried my mouth.

“You are so sure of this threat.”

“For those of us who trade in the Outside, the warning is as clear as the scent of corruption that made you recognize the pox. Harvests have slackened in the Outside. Rainfall has gone scant as if the Gods quarreled. The attack through the nightscaws was only the first act. They are coming.”

Her words triggered a cascade of thoughts in my mind; so many details made sense to me in such a context as she proposed. Even the weakness of the second attack from the people of the nightscaws fell into its place. For all these months I had worked close to the stones, attending to the minutiae of duty; this was like the brief chance to stand on high ground and look far, to see the patterns like the trends of weather under the stars, the currents of the earth itself as it gathered to shrug its back under our feet. Some perception moved in me, aroused and powerful. I did not want to show it to them, and I masked my face with an expression of simple curiosity.

“You interest me. You must, however understand one matter and that is my First Oath belongs to Thane Gehir. I am neither hapless nor stupid in following his lead, I am only true to my Oath. Until I burn my sword or he releases me, I can do nothing else.”

“We shall see what time brings,” she said, but I could tell my message meant less to her than it did to Grassmaster or Quillson. They did not glance at each other yet they seemed to mirror the same gravity, and both looked down at the soft green cloth of the table.

“As for our enemies from the North, they will send diplomatic messengers first,” she said, “and we must handle those messengers with all our craft. They would prefer to take us without battle.”

“Who are these enemies and do they come of one or many kingdoms?”

“It is King Saahr who rises. He has been eating the smaller fiefdoms of the North, and building an army greater than our age of men has yet seen. His peoples will soon feel the bite of hunger and it is through that injury that he possesses them.”

“Why,” I said, addressing all three this time, “do you care? After all, King Saahr and his people are but men. Even if a kingdom falls the merchants and the bankers rise again.”

“Treason aside,” Grassmaster said, his face like a carved slab of ebony in the candlelight, “convenience and sentiment aside, we know that what comes is greater than a change of rulers.”

“It is evil,” Quillson said, his voice breaking the silence for the first time since he had laughed. “An old evil has grown in the North within the walls of Saahr’s kingdom. What comes is not all human. He has awoken an ancient need, an unclean soul, and it comes hungry not for domination alone, nor for power, nor for wealth, but for destruction. He has woken powers that are not from the labor of man nor beast.”

I touched my lips again with wine to gain time. Grassmaster made a restless movement with his hand over the tablecloth.

“You wonder how we know these things. Consider we of the City who trade in the Outside, we have families tied to us by blood, even so far away as the great Cities of Saahr. Perhaps we communicate but rarely, still I can recite to you the lineages and their offshoots which bear the blood of my sires from a thousand years past.”

Grassmaster stared at me as he spoke.

“The grasp of Saahr’s power has extended beyond the Rivers Country. He is coming.”

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“What do you mean by this ‘evil’, and the ‘inhuman’ following?” I asked Quillson. “You will comprehend that the events of the hearing have given me a wariness of those who cry ‘inhuman’ too loudly.”

He did not answer, and I saw his hands knot upon the sea-green napkin that he held.

“You may as well know,” his mother said, her big voice cast very low. “You, Corpsmaster Ti, are not the only one of humankind to show an awful change. Quillson has been cursed with the gift of sight, of the true prescience. I admit that we have kept this as secret as we may, but he saw the nightscaws four days before they came, and warned us of the death that they carried. We did not believe him, but we did have his warning which we now wish we had passed to you, and risked looking like fools. The stuff of fantasies, we thought, yet perhaps the worry he woke made us support you when you called for your extraordinary measures.”

“Is that the only time he has foreseen something that later happened?” I asked.

“No, but the rest are more personal, of illness and death in the family and the manner of these events. Believe us that we are reluctant to share such a thing. Quillson says…”

“Perhaps I had better say it myself,” Quillson spoke as she hesitated. “My mother is a pragmatist and prefers the concrete matters of trade and record keeping. If I had the choice, so would I.

“A change rises in our kind, a reshaping of us and of our abilities. There have been gathering over the centuries new potentialities, but most bound, powerless and mute while they assembled in our blood and bone. Now in a small number of humankind the critical point has been reached, as if a key were made ready to unlock a neglected storeroom. We need time, peace, acceptance and not judgment.

“What Saahr brings is a different rule, not the usual rape and pillage whose madness passes. He brings a kind of lordship that will either prevent or destroy this potential I see. Some part of his strength is from a fire that has no light, and it will burn away much that makes us human and able to become more so. I am not given these thoughts in words, I can only try to translate the sense, and it is hard. I know some of this will sound like nonsense.  If we cannot bring him down, his breaking of the Great Rule will make the Earth itself destroy us.

“You are a pivot point, Ti of the Wall. What I see concerning you is confusing, the balance of your influence is unclear. Resisting Saahr will be important, your leadership of your warriors vital. But I do not foresee that you win. I foresee only that you may make the balance shift.”

“I do not understand this evil of Saahr,” I said. “If he breaks the Great Rule, we and our people may be already forfeit, for in past histories, the innocent have always been swept down along with the guilty whenever our Great Rule was broken.”

“This is where I can only reply what I have said, that we have a chance. A chance but no promise to defeat Saahr and save us all,” he said.

“Because strange things have come to me also, I shall take your warning and turn it over in my mind,” I said. “You imply that in time we shall become more like the wise. Are we of the same kind therefore, and can we inherit the same traits?”

He nodded eagerly and his eyes caught a sliver of green reflection from the lamp.

“Yes. We’ve been mistaken about the wise, They are humans altered by time. I believe they’re what we might become, if only we can have enough time. I believe they come from the future that is before us, trying within the Laws of Gods and Stones to give us a chance to survive long enough to become them.”

“But when you speak of Saahr, it is easy, too easy to call what we do not know, ‘evil’,” I said. “Most creatures under the sun have differences from each other that do not deserve the word. In humankind’s’ pasts there have been so many kingdoms called evil that I cannot accept the word easily. If you set me up to have so much authority and love in this City will there not be a great potential that I shall be corrupted by such power and become an evil within worse than any evil from without? And if I should oppose you in your definition of evil, how then?”

“I am a most imperfect seer,” he said. “I cannot see the face of evil clearly, nor the shapes. The greatest of these is King Saahr who waits in the North. His messengers come and they will be hosted among us, and much will hang upon that meeting. ”

I could at least tell from his face that he believed his own words; there was the ghost of horror upon him, his fine eyes dilated with the memory.

“I see nothing of this wrongness and corruption in you, Ti of the Wall. The power we give you, the glamour we try to shed upon you will affect you in yourself so little because none of them are what you really want.”

“What do I want?” I asked him, and was immediately sorry, because he smiled very like my mother once did, his narrow clever face suddenly both mischievous and tender.

“You want to belong. You want to be part of the body of your people. Everything that selects you out and signifies you above your peers, is regrettable to you. You, Corpsmaster Ti, assassin and warrior, want to be good.”

I could not give him the lie. I sat while Grassmaster laughed softly to himself with a real and vivid amusement, and the skin of my face burned. I tried to find the next question.

“Do you tell the King these warnings?”

Each looked to the other and did not answer.

“I am second-oathed to the King. I must speak to him and tell him what you say.”

“We would be glad of it,” Grassmaster said, “but what have you to say? That the spoilt mad son of a filthy rich Burgmaster sees things in the dark that he takes as portents?”

“I can speak of invasions to come,” I said. “There you have evidence. After all, King Matthew has a son for whom he wishes to keep his throne. No conqueror would spare a royal son. At least if the King is warned we can be openly ready for battles to come.”

“Let it be so,” Grassmaster said. He took a braid of bread from the bowl, breaking it in his hands as though he meant the gesture in ceremony.

“I thank you for what has been said,” I told them. “I and mine shall be ready.”

I took a third sip from my glass of wine, this time really tasting its fullness in my mouth. Servants, answering a signal from Quillson, brought fresh dishes of hot food, making the former array vanish as if by sleight of hand. I watched as Quillmaster broke her own braid of hot bread.

“So your silence in my legal hearing the other night,” I said to Grassmaster, “came from your belief in Quillson’s prescience.”

“Yes,” he said. “I didn’t like it when I watched you heal, yet I sensed no horror from your act. I felt no evil. What I remembered were  rumors that I’ve heard from the north running to me along many trade routes, and how I’ve seen in my dreams a fear both great and black.”

“You dream too, of things not yet here. I saw you touch Adarte’s arm. You understood the nature of her wound.”

“We were fortunate, were we not,” he said dryly, “that your healing powers are no more.”

“Very,” Quillmaster noted.

“The convenience is noted,” I said. “I have a question.”

They looked at me in the blaze of candlelight.

“Can any here tell me if my small naiman lived or died?”

“Do you have no soldiers who might tell you truly?” Grassmaster challenged.

“Truly? Always. Yet I find it better to ask you, so that I do not have to know exactly who knows.”

He smiled a little, a very thin smile.

“Perhaps. Well then, I heard that it lived. The man Kinspater of JeKri, and the priest of Hua, the God of many faces, sent to have it killed as an abomination, but no one could tell them where that group of naiman had gone, for gone they were. Your sorcery worked, Master Ti, and I think that even your oathmaster Thane Gehir will consider that fact with concern.”

I had satisfied my curiosity, but I was also sorry that I had given way to my curiosity. Now I had to think of what it meant and if the fact of my success disturbed Grassmaster, it disturbed me more. I imagined for one frivolous moment healing horses, rats and other animals.

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When I spoke with the King in his sunny audience chamber, he listened, but I could tell nothing of what he thought.

“Corpsmaster Ti,’ he said when I was done. “What you say, was known to me. You have done your duty.”

I saluted and left, but there arose in my memory the bright wings of  pigeons circling over the towers of the Fortress against a brilliant blue sky, and I wondered if perhaps our King had information complete than any that our Burgmasters possessed.

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