Read an Excerpt
“You’d think the Tilborans would have more sense,” snapped Bhayar. “Some of them, anyway.” His dark blue eyes appeared almost black in the dim light of the small study that adjoined his receiving chamber. In the midafternoon of summer, the air barely moved, even with the high arched ceilings, and when it did, it only brought the smells of the city up the hill to the palace overlooking the harbor of Solis. He walked to the map displayed on the wooden stand, scowled, and then looked to the man in scholar’s brown.
“Why would you think that?” Quaeryt replied in the formal Bovarian in which he’d been addressed, as always. He smiled politely, his thin lips quirking up slightly at the corners. Despite the itching of his slightly-too-long nose, he did not scratch it.
“Don’t bait me, scholar.” The Lord of Telaryn added only a slight emphasis to the last word. “Tell me what you have in mind.”
“Only your best interests, my lord.” Quaeryt shifted his weight off his slightly shorter left leg. The higher heel of his left boot helped, but the leg ached when he stood for long periods.
“When you talk like that, you remind me of the sycophants who surrounded my sire in his last days.”
“Why might they have talked like that?”
“Answer my question!”
“Have you considered why I—or they—would avoid answering a demand delivered so forcefully?” Quaeryt grinned.
Abruptly, Bhayar laughed. “There are times … friend or no friend…”
“Every time anything went wrong in Tilbor immediately after your sire conquered it, his first solution was to issue an edict. If that didn’t work, he killed people.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“It did indeed. It still does. But … exactly how many of your soldiers are stationed in Tilbor and not on the borders with Bovaria? How many weeks would it take to get the companies from Tilbora or Noira to Solis—if you had enough ships to carry them?”
“I could commandeer merchantmen.”
“How long before they became as unhappy with you as the Tilborans are?”
“They won’t turn to Kharst.” Bhayar laughed.
“Not until they forget what he did to the Pharsi merchants in Eshtora. How long will that be? As long as you’ve had garrisons in Tilbor?”
“Quaeryt! Enough of your questions. You’re as bad as Uhlyn was. Scholars and imagers! A ruler can’t live with them, and a strong one can’t live without them. You’ll turn my hair as white as yours.” A fist outsized for the lord’s wiry frame slammed onto the pale goldenwood of the desk.
That was always Bhayar’s rejoinder when he tired of dealing with the issues behind the questions, Quaeryt mused behind a pleasant smile, and never mind the fact that Quaeryt’s hair was white blond and that he was actually a year younger than Bhayar, who had just turned thirty.
“Namer’s demons, I hate Solis in the summer. I’d even prefer the mist stench of Extela when the winds blow off the mountain.”
Mist stench? Abruptly, Quaeryt recalled that some of the ancient volcanoes north of the old capital occasionally still belched ash and fumes.
Bhayar blotted his forehead with a linen cloth already soiled in more places than not, for all that it had been fresh and white at noon. “Instead of raising all these questions, why don’t you offer an answer?”
Quaeryt grinned. “I don’t recall your asking for one.”
“I’m asking now. What do you suggest, my friend, the so-knowledgeable scholar? Tell me what I can do to remove the troops from Tilbor without immediately inviting another rebellion?”
“Let me think about it.”
“Don’t think too long.”
“After breakfast—eighth glass of the morning,” suggested Quaeryt, knowing that was too late for the early-rising lord.
“Seventh glass. I still don’t see why you don’t want to stay in the palace. I’ve offered far better quarters than you have on Scholarium Hill…”
“The quarters are indeed better, but I’d end up being of no help to you.” Or to me. “And rulers soon tire of friends or retainers who outlive their usefulness.” That was accurate, but not the real reason for his determination to avoid the palace for as long as possible. “Besides, you’d want me to get up at the Namer-fired glass that you do.”
“You’re not that lazy. You just like me to think you are.”
You and everyone else. “But I am. I don’t work the way you do. I’m just an itinerant scholar fortunate enough to have schooled some with the Lord of Telaryn.”
“Bah … we’ll let everyone else think that.…” Bhayar blotted his forehead again. “Why did he insist on moving the capitol here?” Before Quaeryt could have answered, not that he had any intention of doing so, the lord went on, “I know. I know. A port city on a big river and a good harbor makes more sense for trade and for moving armies. And Grandmere…” He shook his head. “I don’t have to like it.”
Quaeryt wondered about what Bhayar might have said about his grandmother, but decided not to ask. He’d pressed enough. “Tomorrow at seventh glass, then, sire?”
“Go!” Bhayar shook his head, but then grinned again.
“I hear and obey.” Quaeryt’s words were light, verging on the sardonic.
As he left the study and entered the private corridor separating the receiving hall from the study, Quaeryt forced himself to walk without limping, uncomfortable as it was, but he tried never to limp in the palace or when he was around Bhayar. He glanced into the large chamber, on the third level, the highest one in the palace, where, when necessary, Bhayar sat on the gilded throne that had been brought from Extela by his sire sixteen years before and received visitors or handed down formal pronouncements or sentences. Even the wide windows didn’t help much in keeping the chamber cool in the height of summer.
Quaeryt made his way to the west end of the private corridor, where the palace guard unlocked the iron-grille door, allowing the scholar to make his way down the windowless and stifling staircase, past the grille door on the second level to the main-level grille door. Another guard unlocked that door as well. Quaeryt stepped carefully along the shaded and colonnaded walk that bordered the west end of the palace gardens, taking his time so that he could enjoy the cooler air created by the fountains. His enjoyment was always tempered by the knowledge that oxen—and sometimes prisoners—turned the capstan-like pumps that lifted the water to the reservoirs on the uppermost level at the rear of the palace. He was careful not to look into the gardens. After passing the guard at the top of the side steps, he walked down to the gate used by favored vendors and visitors to the palace.
“Good day, scholar,” offered the taller soldier of the two at the gate in accented Bovarian.
“The same to you. I don’t envy you in this heat.”
“Some of the mist from the gardens drifts down here. It’s better than the main gate, let me tell you.”
“I can imagine.” Quaeryt smiled and stepped out onto the wide stone sidewalk below the wall, a sidewalk that bordered the north side of the stone-paved avenue.
Across the avenue to the south and below the palace were the public gardens, open to those suitably attired, according to the judgment of the palace guards stationed at the two entrances. There weren’t that many fountains there, and the cooler venues would already be taken. He turned right and started back toward the hill to the west, close to a vingt away, that held the Scholarium Solum … and the Scholars’ House.
The one-legged beggar boy was a good two blocks west of the palace grounds. Beggars weren’t allowed any closer.
Quaeryt flipped a copper to the beggar boy. “That’s from Lord Bhayar.” His words were in common Tellan.
The beggar frowned.
The scholar flipped a second copper. “And that’s from me, but you wouldn’t have either without your lord.”
The beggar looked at the coppers. “Could you a gotten ’em any dirtier, lord scholar?”
“Complaints, yet? Next time I might try.” Privately, Quaeryt was pleased. It was easier to image a shiny copper than a worn and grubby one, not that anyone would have cared about coppers, but coppers added up to silvers, and silvers to golds, and few would think that a scholar who had dirty coppers was actually imaging them.
The scholar studied the avenue ahead of him, taking in the pair of youthful cutpurses, seemingly playing at bones, on the far side of the flower vendor, and the drunken lout who lurched out of the tavern. His appearance was timed too well and he was just a tad too tipsy. Quaeryt imaged a patch of fish oil onto the heels and soles of his polished boots, just before the fellow reached him.
The man’s heels slipped from under him, and the slam-thief flailed before hitting the stones of the sidewalk. “Friggin’ … sow-slut…”
Obviously, the would-be grabber was having a slow day. Otherwise, he wouldn’t even have bothered with a scholar … unless he knew who Quaeryt was. That could be a problem.
“Do you need help?” Quaeryt asked, expecting the usual knife.
As the man tried to scramble to his feet and the knife appeared, Quaeryt imaged out a sliver of steel, and the useless blade separated from the hilt, and haft and blade clunked on the stones—just as the thief’s boots slid out from under him again and he crashed face-first onto the sidewalk. He moaned, but didn’t move for a moment, and Quaeryt skirted his prone figure, stepping into the avenue and barely avoiding a carriage before regaining the sidewalk. He’d gotten a good look. He just hoped he didn’t have to deal with the thief again. That was one problem with using imaging to create accidents. Some people didn’t learn. They just blamed their bad luck and went on doing stupid or dangerous things.
Although Quaeryt walked at a good pace, he didn’t strain, and he was only sweating moderately when he reached the point where the avenue passed in front of the hill on which the so-called Scholarium Solum was set. The Scholars’ House was halfway down the hill on the west side. Quaeryt glanced up the hill to the dark red brick building that held the Scholarium Solum as he walked past it to the winding walk up to the Scholars’ House, no longer bothering to hide the slight limp he’d always had.
The brick steps of the front entry had shifted slightly over time, and Quaeryt had to take care as he climbed them onto the front porch because his bad leg had a tendency to drag. The wide-roofed porches that encircled the Scholars’ House were designed to pick up the sea breezes, but since the sea breezes brought red flies in the day and mosquitoes at twilight, not to mention all the less than savory smells of the harbor, few scholars ventured out onto the porches once the sun dropped behind the warehouses and factorages to the west.
Quaeryt made his way to the east porch, the most shaded one in the afternoon.
There a younger man in a grayish purple shirt and trousers looked up from his wooden straight-backed chair. “It’s a hot walk from the palace. I still don’t see why Lord Bhayar doesn’t offer you quarters.” Voltyr spoke in Bovarian, as did all scholars, at least with each other and in dealing with the palace and other high officials. He was several years younger than Quaeryt, how many Quaeryt didn’t know exactly. He’d never asked.
“Would you want to live in the palace, Voltyr?” asked Quaeryt as he settled into the chair across from the younger man.
“No. You know that. You’re a scholar. Scholars’ Houses are the only place for imagers, and they’re not even half-safe in some cities, even here at times. Do you know what it was like when my parents discovered I could image a copper?”
“I imagine they were upset and pleased all at once.” Quaeryt had heard enough that when he’d done his first imaging—after hearing about imagers from old Scholar Geis, he’d tried to image a cake, and it had tasted like mud—he’d done it alone. But then, all his imaging had been in secret and painfully discovered by trial and error when the scholars who raised him were not around.
“They were just upset. In a month, I was here, being told not to image until I was older … but no one could help me. They just told me to be careful.”
“There aren’t that many imagers. What about Uhlyn?”
“The only thing he ever said was not to image large things and not to try imaging anything out of metal until I had a beard and then to begin with small items.” Voltyr laughed harshly. “He was so careful about his imaging, but look what happened to him, even with Bhayar’s protection.”
“He wasn’t careful about other things. He flaunted being an imager.” Even as Quaeryt spoke, he understood how many people feared imagers and their seemingly wondrous ability to visualize something and then have it appear. What so few wanted to understand was how painfully few imagers there were or how much skill and strength and concentration it took to image the smallest of objects, and how most imagers could do little beyond that. But … those who could … they were feared and shunned, and often the target of anyone who knew their abilities.
“Oh … and it’s all right for merchants and High Holders to flaunt what they are, but not imagers? Even scholars can flaunt their knowledge.”
“Not without risk,” returned Quaeryt. “People don’t like to be reminded of what they don’t know. That’s why Scholars’ Houses are also the safest place for scholars. Good scholars ask questions. Questions upset rulers and those who fawn on them.”
“Scholars in favor can gather in golds,” pointed out Voltyr.
“Golds aren’t much use to a headless man.”
“Don’t ask questions.”
“What’s the point of being a scholar, then?”
“How about the good life … or the best life possible for someone who wasn’t born a High Holder?”
“High Holders are captive to their wealth.”
“Quaeryt … I’d like to be held captive like that.”
The scholar laughed, then sat there for several moments before asking, “What do you know about Tilbor?”
“Most of it is cold. The people are rude and crude, and they don’t like strangers. They don’t like scholars and imagers, except that they like Telaryn soldiers even less. They like to fight a lot, except when they’re drinking, and they do a lot of that in the winter because it’s too cold to do anything else. Even Antiagon Fire wouldn’t warm Noira in midwinter.” The imager frowned. “Why are you asking?”
“I’m thinking of going there.”
“Why, for the sake of the Nameless?”
“To learn about it, to try to resolve something for Lord Bhayar. Besides, I’ve been seen at the palace too much in the past few seasons. That’s getting to be a problem.”
“That’s a problem half the High Holders in Telaryn would like to have.”
“They only think they want that problem. They don’t know Bhayar.”
Voltyr frowned. “He’s not that arbitrary or cruel. Certainly not like his father, is he?”
“He’s generally very fair. Most High Holders aren’t. But neither forgets anything.”
Quaeryt stood. “Do you want to go down to Amphora later? I have a few spare coppers.”
“How could I refuse such an invitation?”
“You can’t,” laughed the scholar. “Half past fifth glass? I have work to do later.”
With a last smile, Quaeryt turned and walked toward the north porch, hoping the nook by the north chimney wall would be vacant. Both Bhayar’s and Voltyr’s comments about imagers had played into the half-formed idea in his thoughts. Why, indeed, did imagers have to move and act with such care? Could he do anything about that? Or, at least, about his own position?
Copyright © 2011 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.