Once again, Grassmaster’s man Glinka found me in the Yellow Rose. This night I ate alone, brown bread and a dish of chicken stewed in curry with mallons beside a bowl of boiled greens. I stared at him with no friendly feeling, but his wide black eyes didn’t falter.
“You trouble me again,” I said. “what is it now? I warn you I am tired, full of sleep and the impatience it breeds.”
“My Master waits for the pleasure of your company — privately. I shall leave the Inn, as if you refused me. Do you then find me in Second Salvage Street at the cutter’s, and I shall guide you on.”
Curiosity made his suggestion irresistible, and out in the maze of streets when he stepped from the black alley, I turned without a word and shadowed him back upon his circling way. We re-entered the Yellow Rose by a rear eastside stair to one of the cosy conference rooms where sat my hosts. No sooner did the door close behind me than I allowed myself a smile.
“Laymaster of the Westside!” I knew him only by longsight during celebrations when I had been on duty and trained my glass on him from some distant post. Of course his reputation was familiar. All my humor was tickled by him keeping company with so staid a citizen as Grassmaster, who indeed was present, looking if anything more immovably puritan than I had ever seen before. The Laymaster bounded to his feet and swept me first a curtsey and then a deep court bow, his feathered cloak making a riot of colors in the candlelight. I could not refrain from staring at his lined face, so masked with cosmetics that he held from a distance an illusion of eternal youth over the sagged reality of his features. Or, for the first time examining him near, I wondered if the opposite were true– that he concealed youth under crusts of makeup to fake dissapated age.
“And greetings to you Grassmaster, whose word has brought me from the dregs of my meal and the beginnings of my rest. How,” and I allowed the edge of my impatience to show, “may I serve you?”
“I have no wish to waste time for any of us,” Grassmaster said, rising to salute me, “so here’s the point. The death of the Queen,” he said the words with suggestive slowness, as if he wanted to see some reaction from me that I promised myself I would not give, “will it make a difference?”
“How?” I said in true perplexity, and Laymaster of the Westside laughed with delight.
“It’s true, Grassmaster! She’s just as linear as you told me.”
“In your loyalty, Corpsmaster, as the enemy assembles Outside the Gates. Does her death weaken your alliance with the King?”
“An oath is an oath, Grassmaster,” I said though my heart ached with the words. “and none of my people have yet burned their swords.”
“Yet? Queen Heme was one of yours, and so,” he whispered the last words, “was the Guard named Haemerick.”
I looked at him stone-faced.
“I suppose I should be sorry and apologize my dear,” the Laymaster interrupted, “but you see I have my little ways, and one of them involves your partisans. You know, your little blue friends.”
“My friends?” and I am sure I looked as blank as I felt.
“And you told me she had a quick wit, Grassmaster. No problem, I don’t mean to be insulting but it’s just that you don’t think the way we do. Advantage and connections, simply vital, that’s all. Connect the dots.
“They know all about it, those nieman, they talk a lot among themselves, and if a person manages to learn their tongue, it’s a handy thing. I had a sweet little girl,” Laymaster smiled, “about eight years old, and she showed such a gift that I had her parents apprentice her to me and I had her spend her days among the little blue fellows until she learned their ways and their language. Can’t tell you what an advantage it’s been, maybe you wouldn’t believe it. But no one pays attention to the naiman and they get around. Beautifully, they do, and if you ever tried to find them out, they are near impossible to see in the dark if they go without those little cloaks and hoods. Some charcoal to shadow their skins, you see.”
“What happened to your sweet girl?” I had to ask.
“What a salary she pulls down,” he shook his head. “Such a pity we have no slavery. I’m sure I could have bought her from her idiot parents. Some day we may have a new Guild in this City, if it passes the Burgmaster’s Council. A Guild of Speechmasters and she will be its head. But I digress.”
“You certainly do,” Grassmaster raised the mug of dark ale at his side and sipped, but I saw more amusement than impatience in his big black eyes as he looked at his brilliant companion, and I realized that they had not only a cooperative association, but indeed friendship. It boggled my mind how they could have met for Grassmaster had the reputation of a man dedicated to his one-mate marriage. I would have known it if there were holes in that reputation.
“Well, the Queen is safe. They are taking care of her because they know you, Master Ti, are the one who left her in their holy place. They smelled you on her, from what I hear. That’s one thing my girl could not discover, by the way, and I really wish you’d enlighten me. Where do a people like the naiman have a holy place? They have built no church and I have never seen any large group assembled.”
I looked at him, shook my head.
“Oh? Oh, well, I hope you’ll reconsider. Might be a handy thing to know. Don’t you feel guilty or as if you’ve been rude though, I will find it out. I shall winkle it out. I’m very good at winkling.”
“It is well, in my eyes,” Grassmaster stated, “that you involved only yourself in these incidents. The Guard Haemerick and her companion are gone, and there is no soul in the City who would blame Prince Daniel for helping you to save his own mother. No one, indeed who could blame you for following the orders of your Prince.
“So tell me,” he asked with abrupt urgency. “Is he truly our own Prince? Or had the King the right of it? Is he a bastard?”
“I would pledge myself to Queen Heme’s honor,” I said. “What evil has been told to the King to so deceive him, I cannot say, but it is an empty evil. Our Prince has the very look of King Matthew if you look upon him with an open eye.
“My turn to ask questions,” I said. “I need to know what soldiers went out from this City to entrap and kill my officers and me when we went out in the night a week past.”
“You should have come to me beforetimes,” Laymaster said quietly. “A person hired them with promises through the Priest Kinspater who spoke against you at your trial. It seemed in this person’s best interest to comply. They contracted further with a set of Northern bandits. You met a mixed group in more than motive that night.”
“A person?” I asked.
“A person from this City,” he answered, making it clear that he would go no further. “A one who has no Guild.”
“Then too,” I said, “I need to know where the Burgmasters of the City stand. We walk on difficult ground and the fault is mine. My judgment has been troubled by the cases of the Queen and the Guard. I acted without clear thought and I have much to answer for. Will you support me, or call for my dismissal?”
“We have gone too far with you, Corpsmaster Ti, to drop you now without some great provocation. We have no time,” said Quillmaster, emerging from the back. “There is no official vote, nothing that is recorded, but you still have support and our silence, so that you shall keep your place as long as the King wills it.”
“Even between you of the City who go your various ways in the day, there is an oath not definable, not formalized, which binds you each to the others,” I said. “You bring me to see the Wall of my allegiance more humbly.”
I rose and saluted the three.
“‘Necessity knows no other master,'” Quillmaster said and all three returned my gesture.
“And someday, Westside Laymaster,” I added, “when we have time for studies instead of intrigue, perhaps you would allow me to meet with your sweet girl, for I much desire to learn the language of the naiman if it is possible.”
I found it difficult to submit myself to the King’s gray gaze in the following days. He made no announcement, but rumor bled through the streets that our queen had died, some hinted, by her own hand. A suicide, full of ill luck. I suppose that was the reason no official rites were held. How so important a matter as the death of a Queen could be so easily dismissed, I did not understand. But then, of course Laymaster was right when he called me linear in my thinking.
The prince showed himself as usual by his father’s right hand in audiences, no paler, looking upon me among others with no apparent change of any kind in his thin face.