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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 19: Slade 49
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Previous chapter: Chapter 18: Hastings 101
Slade was lucky again this time. They had not traveled far when they came to a village, and in its midst an inn. Not knowing what was left of the daylight, or where the next village would be, Slade decided they should stay the night and continue in the morning.
The innkeeper confirmed that this was indeed the fief of Acquivar. It was a large fief, Slade realized, as they were several days from the castle by foot. Acquivar was not some petty noble, as (he had to admit) he and Filp were, but a prince. That put him less at ease with this mission. Their enemy would have significant resources; their only real advantage at this point was surprise. They could lose that so easily.
It struck Slade that it would be easier to lose their advantage than he had considered. When he had the opportunity to get them alone, he brought it up with Shella and Filp.
"Listen," he said, "I know this sounds crazy, but whatever you do, don't say anything about our mission, or who we are, or anything at all, and don't mention the caliph or Phasius or going to the castle or anything, if you are anywhere near fire or flame. Don't talk near lamps, hearths, lanterns, stoves, anything at all like that."
"What are you on about now?" Filp asked.
"I know it sounds crazy."
"You said that," Shella said.
"Right. Well, it does. But our enemy is allied with one of the efriit lords or something. I know that the spirits of the air heard me when I addressed the wind. I can't say that the spirits of fire aren't listening from every flame and every hot coal in every village and campsite in this valley. The fire might well hear us, and tell Acquivar we're coming. The last thing we want to do is tell him to expect us."
Filp's jaw dropped. Shella spoke first.
"I hadn't thought of that. You're right, of course. The fires could be listening."
"Do you mean," Filp said, finding his tongue, "that everything I've ever joked about by a fire has been broadcast to the efriit?"
"I didn't say that," Slade said. "I said that the fires might be listening, not that they always were. For that, the spirits of the air were probably hanging around when you told your bawdy jokes by the fire, and probably the spirits of water and stone. The tree spirits surround us as we walk through the woods; sometimes I can feel them watching. There are spirits all around us, all the time. They are there when we eat, when we work, when we sleep, always."
"You mean," Filp was obviously upset by this, "there were spirits watching us when Wen and me–" He broke off, apparently looking for a word. Slade figured it out.
"I wouldn't worry about that. They generally aren't interested in that, I'd guess, any more than you would be in cows or dogs or something. Whether you're naked or dressed doesn't make any difference to them. They're spirits, so they're concerned about spiritual things. But yeah, I don't imagine there's anything any of us have ever said or done that the spirits don't know about, or at least some of them somewhere. That's probably why," and he stopped, looking around as if for any sign of unseen spies, before continuing in a quieter voice with carefully selected words. "That's probably why we were taken to the palace, so only allies could hear us."
Shella was nodding, obviously understanding the situation. Filp still looked aghast, trying to come to grips with a view of the world he had not imagined.
"Also," he added, addressing Shella, "no fire spells. Let's just say they might be unreliable."
The girl started to giggle. It took Slade a moment to realize why. She had last seen him going up in flames, the result of a mispronounced spell back in his castle. He started to laugh with her. "Yeah, right," he said, "maybe I don't much trust fire. But you know what I'm saying."
"Yes, I do," she said. "I'll try to remember anything useful I ever learned that had to do with air." Again she smiled. He liked to see her smile.
The food was lousy, the beds uncomfortable, and the rooms primitive and dusty; but in all it was better than sleeping in the woods and faster than hunting for supper. Breakfast was not much better–the hot cereal cooked up by the innkeeper's wife might have been peas porridge in the pot nine days old, by the taste. Slade reminded himself that you couldn't always eat in the palace of a djinn lord, and this was better than dirt. They were moving down the hill while the sun was still trying to peek over the mountains. They didn't talk much, or stop often, as they passed through several small villages, and so found themselves coming into the flatter land of the valley floor shortly after the sun had crossed it. There was again an inn along the road, and again they took rooms and meals there.
The rustic interior of the main hall, flickering in the dim light of the fire, along with the bitter beverage which passed for ale, in some ways reminded Slade of his first meeting with Filp and his cousins. It was in a tavern not much different from this that he had been given a bowl of stew and a pint of something alcoholic as he and they told their stories. Tonight there would be no stories; too much was at risk to chat freely in front of the fire.
But the locals had different ideas. Perhaps a dozen men were drinking heartily and talking boisterously. It was entertaining to watch, even if you had no idea what it was about. But suddenly one of them started on something about which Slade did know a bit, and he wished he could slip out unnoticed.
"So then, why did he arrest Phasius?" the loud, slightly drunken voice said.
Great, Slade thought. Here we are doing our best to be unnoticed, and some drunken stranger is going to call the entire guard down on us. He wanted to fade into a corner.
"You know what a meddler Phasius was," one of the others said. "I'm surprised Prince Acquivar allowed him liberty as long as he did. He was a model of restraint."
"All Phasius did was insist that someone find out what killed the Princess Taneia, to remove suspicion from the Prince. I would like to know the same thing."
"That's not exactly all Phasius did," a third, calmer voice injected. "Prince Acquivar answered those accusations. His royal physicians explained that the Princess' death was one of those mysterious ends that medicine cannot explain or prevent. Phasius' upset was understandable, even excused by the Prince. Phasius was arrested when he objected to the Prince marrying the Princess Odette."
"And well he should have," said the first. "The dear Princess Taneia not six months in the ground, and the Prince is wed to her best friend. Tell me that isn't at least very suspicious. Plenty of men would kill their wives to have another, if the law wouldn't stop them. The Prince is not above the law; and he should at least have recognized how it would look, if nothing else. I say he has broken faith with the law, and all of us. If he is willing to allow such suspicions as that he killed his own wife to marry her best friend to go unanswered, how can we expect justice from such a man? Does he even know what Justice is? Phasius is a priest, he is, and it's his job to object when people get above themselves."
Slade turned to see if there was an exit behind him somewhere; peering through the flickering darkness he did not see one. He then realized that a voice he knew was speaking. Shella had risen from her chair.
"Gentlemen," she said, and Slade nearly fell from his seat. "I and my companions are strangers in your country; but your words interest me. Is it not treason in this land to accuse its lord of a crime?"
There was a general muttering at the table, and the first man answered. "Begging your pardon, ma'am; I did not mean to accuse him of no crime. I only meant to say that it was terrible suspicious, and he shouldn't ought to allow such suspicions to go without a good answer–and he specially shouldn't ought to have married someone else, not so soon, and not particularly someone so close that she could be suspected of having somewhat to do with the death of her friend. That's all I was saying."
"And am I to understand that that is all this, this other man, the priest you mentioned, was saying when the Prince had him arrested?"
Again the men seemed to discuss this very briefly before answering. "Yes, ma'am," said another. "He was only saying that the Prince should give us some proof that he didn't off the Princess before taking another wife. But he was saying it a lot, and in a lot of places, and to a lot of people. I think maybe most of us would have forgot that there was any question about the death of Princess Taneia but that Phasius kept reminding us."
"I see. You do all expect the Prince to maintain order in these lands?"
The men assented with various nods and grunts.
"It would be more difficult, I think, for him to do so if his people did not trust him; would you agree?"
Again there was a general assent.
"Thus it would seem quite natural for Prince Acquivar to imprison Phasius the priest, and anyone else who stirred up discontent among the people." This last seemed to be emphasized, as if she were calling it to the attention of the one man in the crowd whose opinion had sparked the debate. "After all, such talk, even if not treasonous, is certainly disruptive. I would not be one who spoke against my lord loudly or publicly, whatever my private opinions were. Let him ask if he wishes my opinion, and I will give him it. But do not let me be heard stirring up discontent among his subjects if he wishes to do something to which I, a mere lady in court, might object."
She turned to sit, then checked herself and spoke again. "I am sorry to have interrupted; thank you for explaining this to me." Then she sat.
Slade finished his drink in one gulp, rose, and calmly walked outside. Once in the cool night air, he laughed aloud.
Shella and Filp followed a moment later, to find him still laughing. He looked at the sorceress.
"I love you," he said. "That was brilliant; it was incredible. 'I would not be one to speak against my lord loudly or publicly'--you silenced them without giving anyone a hint of anything. You are wonderful."
She blushed a bit. "Thank you, my lord," she said. Slade had forgotten that there was this aspect to their relationship; he had always downplayed it, but ultimately he had been lord of the castle and she a guest, daughter of another nobleman. She usually let him ignore that. He wondered why she reverted to that respect at this moment.
"Let's get some sleep," he said, smiling at them, and particularly at her, and started back inside.
"No," Shella answered. "We are going to need allies. This man may be a drunken peasant, but I think we should catch him alone and question him further."
Thus the three of them waited in the cool night air while the laughter died inside the inn and the locals slowly departed.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with ten other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #164: Versers Proceed. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: