• Rebekah Olson

Chapter 24

Heston strode across the bailey along the same path Nita had. Tajor met him about halfway, and the two stopped to exchange a few words. Tajor pointed at Jerryck. Heston nodded once, and continued on his way. Tajor came over to Jerryck and gave a minuscule bow to Marla. “My Lady, I’m afraid I must take your uncle from you. Staff is being gathered for an urgent meeting and his attendance is required.” Marla giggled. “I’m not a lady.” “Are you sure?” Tajor cocked his head. “Nobles are ladies.” “You’re as pretty as any noble lady I’ve ever seen.” Tajor grinned. “Prettier than some.” She smiled shyly and tipped her face down, looking up at him through coy lashes. Jerryck gave her a pat on the head and follow Tajor inside saying, “Thank you for that. She needed some encouragement.” They went to the large council chamber, which meant a lot of people called on to attend. Terrance usually preferred the small council chamber if it would seat everyone. It had one large table that filled the floor space and everyone could sit facing each other. Unlike that smaller room, this one had a large table on a dais at the windowed end of the room with chairs facing everyone else. Most of the rest of the chamber was lined with long tables for people to sit, take notes, do paperwork, shuffle files, or just look busy. Many people claimed that putting some of the staff up on the dais with the King gave them the appearance of equal authority. Jerryck couldn’t see it, since Terrance rarely sat during these meetings. He normally stood in front of the table, keeping everyone’s attention and reinforcing who was in charge. Having staff sitting up in front didn’t put them in charge anymore than the colored banners on the walls actually meant the districts they represented were physically present. All it did was make that part of the staff more conspicuous, easy for everyone to stare at and scrutinize. Several had already gathered. More were coming in. Some of the elite guards stood casually by the walls, spread out under the district banners. Tajor went to join them while people filled the seats. Priad Lalven already sat at the table on the dais. The princess entered, still wearing her riding clothes. She headed for the dais, Heston close behind her. Heston caught Jerryck’s arm and guided him up where he was supposed to sit. “Don’t try and lurk in the back again.” “I hate sitting up there were everyone can stare at me,” Jerryck said. He didn’t pull away, letting Heston draw him along. “It’s where the core staff belongs,” Nita said to him. She didn’t even hesitate to take her seat next to her father’s vacant chair on the opposite side of Lalven. Neither of them made eye contact, both determinedly looking in a different direction from each other. Terrance was one of the last people in, accompanied by Chamberlain Malk. The few people that trickled in after them scurried to find a seat. Everyone was quiet by the time Terrance stepped up to the dais. Standing before the table, he addressed everyone. “We just received a messenger with an urgent letter from the Shontese palace. Prince Yaquerro, heir to the Shontese throne, has been killed.” Whispers broke out around the entire room. People leaned over to each other, their mouths moving. Jerryck leaned his arms on the table, the smooth surface somehow not as comfortable as the pits and scars that marred his worktable. Terrance waited until the room quieted, folding his hands calmly in front of himself. “You all know he went on a hunting trip to the mountains every summer. This year, his party was attacked. There were no survivors.” “Barbaric Chemwanee,” someone spewed. The next voice was full of concern. “Are they going to war over this?” “We don’t know yet,” Terrance said. “All we know is what I announced. For now, just concern yourself with preparations. We need to put together a delegation to go and bring the condolences of Brend to Prince Sanbralio.” Jerryck stopped paying attention when they started hashing out details of which people would take on what assignments. It was all generalities that didn’t have much to do with him anyway. Terrance would decide with a much smaller group of people who should take on the role of delegate. Jerryck probably wouldn’t be able to get out of that meeting either, though that also didn’t have much to do with him. He unrolled the papers Ressell had given him and took a closer look at the lists. Each boy was listed with his age, estimated potential, and location where to find him. None of them had any training as yet. None of them would be able to make the poison that had contaminated an entire river. All responses he had received thus far were pretty much the same. He was going to have to spread his search outside the nation. He could ask Shamaness Sakila for help searching to the east. They also were more likely to know of any women with potential. That was information he wouldn’t receive from any magician who had taken oaths to the Gathering. To the west, he’d have to mail a letter on a ship over to the archipelago. The magicians there were much more sparse. Same with the tundra to the north. He pulled his lower lip. To the south was more problematic. After he had tossed Masorno out of the palace, none of the Shontese magicians would have much to do with him. They would readily interact with other Brendish magicians. But every time Jerryck tried to interact, they asked if he had apologized to Masorno yet. It was going to have to happen. Whether he liked it or not. Which meant going to Shontarra personally. Which made it even worse. He sat down, resigned to insisting on being part of the delegation. The people in the room started milling about. Some loitered, chatting in small groups, while others left. Terrance and Nita headed for the door that opened into the small council chamber. Most of the core staff, some of the elite guards, with Tajor among them, and a few others followed them. Heston pulled Jerryck out of his chair. “Come. Follow-up required. You know the routine.” In the smaller room, the steward bent over the table, making lists before he even sat down. Chamberlain Malk stood off to the side, talking quietly with Priad Lalven and some other guy with a gruff looking face. Jerryck had seen that man somewhere before. But then he’d seen a lot of people before. Princess Nita held one of her father’s hands with both of hers. She bounced on the balls of her feet. When everyone stopped talking and took a seat, he didn’t start the meeting. He just stared at her, his face pinching tighter and tighter. Lalven wrinkled his nose at her. “What are you so excited about?” She ignored Lalven, as usual. She kept her attention focused on her father. “I could do this instead of going on a vacation!” “Do what?” Lalven’s tone dropped in pitch. “I could go to Shontarra as the delegate!” Chamberlain Malk rubbed his chin. “Now, that’s not a bad idea.” Terrance gave him a look of abject horror. “Yes it is!” “Absolutely it is!” Lalven agreed with him. “It’s a terrible idea.” “Do you have someone better in mind?” Nita challenged. Lalven looked past her. He raised a hand to the gruff man. “Terrance, this is Keniv. He’s the son of one of the land magistrates in the Flaynes District. He’s been dealing with the Shontese his entire life. He’s been there as a trader countless times. He knows their culture and customs better than most of the rest of us. And he knows Lord Andreno personally. That is a huge advantage, since Andreno will now be named heir.” “I know Andreno personally,” Nita said. “And I’m already heir to a throne. It would be good to strengthen ties between both the heirs of our two nations.” “You’re a girl,” Lalven said, over-enunciating every word. Jerryck shook his head. This was going to turn into another screaming match between the two, and this time he couldn’t back out. He had to stay make sure he was included in the delegation. “You—” Lalven stabbed a finger at Nita— “will never rule from the throne. That will go to your future husband!” “Lalven…” Terrance pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “How many times must I point this out?” Lalven’s volume rose. “Terrance, if you’d go through that list of names I have, if you’d even look at them, you might have an idea of who you might choose. And you could send that man on this mission as the delegate. Try him out! But you haven’t. And now here we are, with a dilemma. And once again, I’m offering you a solution I shouldn’t have to. And just like always, she’s trying to sabotage all my efforts!” “Stop!” Terrance let go of his nose. “This is neither the time nor the place.” “It’s never the time or place,” Lalven said. “She’s fifteen in a couple of months. An adult eligible to marry. You’re going to have to face this long before you want to.” Terrance turned away from Lalven. “Nita, you’re not going to Shontarra.” “But father,” she said. “No,” he repeated. “She’s right about the two heirs strengthening ties,” Chamberlain Malk said. “That’s something she could have with Andreno that Prince Yaquerro didn’t even pretend any interest in.” Terrance swiped his hands through the air. “She’s not going!” “I’d send my best men with her,” Heston said. “And whoever else you want to protect her.” “I can’t think of anyone who could protect her well enough for me to let her go to Shontarra,” Terrance said. “I’d rather go with her than some stranger,” Jerryck said. Lalven turned a sneer at him. “You’re not going.” Malk looked more interested. “You want to go to Shontarra?” Jerryck grimaced. “Not particularly. But I should. And this makes for a good excuse.” Terrance sighed, long and heavy. He pinched the bridge of his nose again, squeezing his eyes shut. A slow grin spread across Nita’s face for some reason. “This is ridiculous!” Lalven threw his hands in the air, his face turning red. “Nita! You’re not going, and that’s final!” Nita’s grin turned slightly smug. She put her hand on her father’s arm and leaned close. “You’re not going to let Jerryck go with just anyone, are you?” Terrance opened one eye and fixed it on Jerryck. “Are you certain you need to go?” Jerryck nodded. “Unfortunately.” “You hate going to Shontarra,” Lalven spoke through gritted teeth. “I have to find someone,” Jerryck said. “Heston.” Terrance dug into his eyes with his thumbs. “Besides Nita’s regular bodyguards, who else would go for security?” Heston ticked names off his fingers. “Tad, Tajor, Deek, Cade, Garrett, Vinch, Rollard…” He listed more than a dozen of them in all. The only one Jerryck could put a face to was Tajor. “Would you send all those same men for just Jerryck?” Lalven asked. He crossed his arms. “Nita really shouldn’t go. Keniv is fully qualified to carry out this mission. And as I said, he knows Andreno. He even has some gifts to bring some of Andreno’s friends. Nita’s just a girl.” Terrance turned his back on Lalven. “Nita, you may go.” He walked out of the room, shoulders hunched. Nita bounced out behind him, squealing with glee. The steward, the chancellor, the chamberlain, and several others followed them out, leaving only a few in the room. Lalven and his friend Keniv stayed. So did Heston and most of the elites. Tajor smirked at Jerryck. “That made for a short meeting, now didn’t it?” Lalven slapped both his hands on the tabletop and leaned in at Jerryck. “Why did you do that?” “Do what?” Jerryck asked. He lifted one hand to jab a finger in Jerryck’s direction. “I have a hard enough time keeping her in her place without you interfering!” “Where exactly is her place?” Tajor asked. Lalven ignored Tajor and continued shouting at Jerryck. “Terrance is coming up on the hardest decision he’ll ever have to make. The more she gets him to give her the responsibilities of someone who will take his place, the more difficult this will be for him!” Jerryck frowned. “What are you talking about?” “You don’t believe she’ll rule from the throne?” Tajor leaned on the table, putting his face right next to Lalven’s. Lalven leaned away from him. “Why are you speaking to me?” “Because he has permission to speak his mind.” Heston hadn’t moved from the corner where he stood watching everyone. “As long as he’s respectful to the king, the princess, and high nobles.” “I’m more important than just any noble.” Lalven swished a hand against Tajor as if to brush him away. Tajor didn’t move. Lalven fixed him with a pointed stare. “I have the ear of the king on a daily basis.” “Which ear?” Tajor asked. “Do you keep one in your pocket? Does he have one that’s not attached to his head? Because it looked to me like he just took both of his ears and walked away from you.” “Incredible,” Keniv mumbled. He said to Heston, “If I allowed this kind of disrespect from the men in my caravan, I’d never get any trading done.” Heston looked unmoved. “If the discipline of my men becomes any of your concern, I’ll ask your opinion.” Jerryck picked up his things, hoping to slip out while the others continued arguing. He took a moment to roll back up the lists Ressell had given him. That gave Keniv just enough time to stride to the door, beating him there and blocking the way. Glaring at Jerryck, he said, “The priad asked you a question that you didn’t answer, you cowered.”