• Rebekah Olson

Chapter 50

The journey stretched out. Long. Boring. Cold. Monotonous. And exhausting, with the pace they maintained. Jerryck left his family again. Tajor accompanied this time, so Zev wasn’t even getting any lessons. Tajor reminded him daily that Sinchet was the name of the secondary adviser under the Chamberlain who came. That drew attention to the fact that Jerryck had trouble with names. Embarrassing. A handful of elite guards escorted them. Jerryck knew none of them. He’d been told that Cade and Garret were both tired and needed to rest. Tajor admitted that they were actually in trouble for bringing the prisoner to the palace with no restraints. They were going nowhere for a while. Their friend Deek, the guard with a crooked nose, had mouth off in their defense. So he was in trouble too, or he might have escorted just so Jerryck would know at least one of the guards. No one would listen to him regarding the prisoner. They transported him in a supply wagon under a pile of furs and blankets, cuffed at the wrists and ankles, still blindfolded. The restraints were insulting. Jerryck kept the man under control, not the cuffs. And it took a toll on him to do it. He couldn’t get enough sleep on the road to fully replenish what he spent every day maintaining the low level of magic. All that was secondary to leaving his family again. Leanne had puked the morning he’d left. He used magic to ease her morning sickness, but it would wear off long before he returned. He should have stayed there, not gone off gallivanting around the country and beyond. After they entered Shontarra, they turned east at the first crossroad. Andreno sent them a message telling them the exact location of his main encampment in the district of Garham so they could meet him there. They mucked through lowlands turned swampy by cold winter rains before making their way up to the higher ground that was close to the Shontese border with the Chemwanitz. A man wearing a military uniform and ribbons of high rank met them at the edge of a city of tents and soldiers. He placed a fist on his heart and gave them a respectful nod. “Welcome, Brendish nobility. I am Commander Mirvian, military adviser to Prince Andreno representing the Garham District. Please, allow me to show you to the accommodations we’ve prepared for you.” He escorted them to the heart of the encampment, directing them to a tent twice the size of the one they used on the road. Still, it was dwarfed by the garish tent nearby. Mirvian nodded at it and said, “That’s Andreno’s. He’s being informed of your arrival. Don’t be surprised if he invites you to join him for the midday meal.” Three men and a woman stood in a line beside the entrance to their tent. Mirvian opened his hand to them. “Andreno has provided these servants to supply whatever needs may arise. So please, avail yourselves of them, allow them to help you make yourselves comfortable.” “We don’t need servants for that,” Jerryck said. He stalked past them and went inside. The canvas wall didn’t block the noise of Sinchet spluttering and apologizing for Jerryck’s terse words, making excuses about him being tired and cranky. Jerryck threw himself down on one of the sleeping mats provided. It was cushioned, much more comfortable than the roll he’d been sleeping in on the road. The others came in one by one, the guards bearing some of the burdens from their supply wagon. None of the Shontese servants entered. The guards laid the sleeping prisoner on one of the mats. They checked him, covered him, then one stood over him while the others arranged all the baggage and supplies. Before much longer, they received a summons from the Shontese prince. Leaving behind half the guards, they stepped inside Andreno’s ostentatious, multi-roomed tent. The garish colors of the canvas cast everything in an odd light. Andreno’s skin had a false tint of orange, and when he flashed them his smile, his teeth had a yellowish hue instead of their brilliant white. “Welcome to Shontarra!” He raised his hands, throwing his arms wide. “I’m so pleased you’ve come. Sinchet, it’s good to see you again.” Sinchet nodded in deferential response. Then Andreno turned to Tajor. “You must be the new Priad. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Tajor smiled and said nothing. Jerryck lifted a finger and opened his mouth to point out that the two had already met, more than once. But Andreno kept talking. “I know it’s a bit early for the midday meal. I also know that while you’re on the move, it can be difficult to get the time to sit down to a decent meal. Please, join me.” Servants bustled around, setting out food. They offered tasseled cushions to the guests. The elite guards that had escorted them, faded back with all the other extra people hanging about in the main room. Their eyes flicked to every face present. Tajor looked over all the extra people once, then gave Andreno his full attention. Jerryck looked around too. Why were they all just standing there? Was watching Andreno eat with guests considered entertainment in Shontarra? People hadn’t done that with Prince Sanbralio in his palace. Most people had toned down the flamboyance of their clothes here outside the palace. Several Shontese commanders were present, their uniforms decorated with ribbons and braids and pins, their colors coordinating with the district they represented. There were a couple of officials Jerryck had met in the palace, not that he could remember their names. The only person that really looked out of place was a young man with dark blond hair. His boots were sturdy, polished but with scuff marks from use. His clothes looked like a uniform of some type. There were outlines on the collar, chest, and sleeves where stitches had once lay, as if all symbols or patches had been removed. On the belt at his waist, he carried a Shontese style dagger and a strange, triangular leather pouch. One of the servants put a plate of steaming food on a low table in front of Jerryck. During the meal, he used the same stiff manners he forced himself to use the end of every week when he had to eat supper in the banquet hall with all the nobles visiting the palace. Focusing on that, he tuned out the conversation until Andreno addressed him directly. “Jerryck,” he said. “I haven’t seen you since you came to visit us that time with Nita. How is she getting on?” Jerryck swallowed his mouthful of food and said, “She’s fine.” “I hear that her Processions have started.” Andreno leaned his elbows on the table. “How’s that going? Has she shown any interest in any of the young men in particular?” Tajor answered for Jerryck. “Not as yet.” “It’s good that she’s cautious.” Andreno scowled at his servant dishing him a second helping of the main course. Then he boxed the woman’s ear. He kept talking as though it hadn’t happened. “Someone in her position can’t afford to show that they’ve taken a fancy to anyone if they’re not appropriate for the position they’ll be marrying into.” Jerryck mentally reached out and touched the aura of the servant Andreno had struck. She was going deaf in that ear from repeated abuse and injury. One by one, he checked the other servants. All of them showed signs of repeated abuse. “Jerryck?” Andreno waved at him. Jerryck jerked his focus back on the people at the table. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” “I asked if the food wasn’t to your liking,” Andreno said, looking at Jerryck’s plate. “You stopped eating.” “It’s fine.” Jerryck stared at the suddenly unpalatable food. “I’m tired. I think I need to rest.” “Traveling is rather hard on a man,” Andreno said. “You may go back to your tent and rest.” Jerryck fled. When he got back to their tent, the guards there had let the Shontese servants in. He checked their auras and found signs of abuse in them as well. He plopped down on one of the sleeping pallets. He couldn’t help them. None of them would even look directly at him. It took almost another hour for the others to return. Tajor spent several minutes talking to Mirvian. When he left Tajor clapped his hands, getting the attention of everyone in the tent. He said to the Shontese servants, “Thank you all for a job well done. You’re finished. Get out.” Several of the elite guards stared at him with surprise. Jerryck’s jaw dropped open. Tajor made shooing gestures, hurriedly ushering the servants out. As soon as the tent flap closed behind the last of them, he turned to everyone else. “Pack up. We’re leaving.” “We haven’t delivered the king’s message,” Sinchet protested. Tajor swiped his hands through the air, cutting Sinchet off. “Change of plans due to unforeseen circumstances. Pack. Leave behind anything we don’t absolutely need or can pick up elsewhere on the road. We travel light.” While the guards started throwing their things back into their travel bags, Sinchet didn’t budge. “We have to deliver the message.” “I did,” Tajor said. “You told Andreno we wouldn’t help him invade the mountains. That’s only half the message. You can’t arbitrarily decide to change what the king sent you to say.” “I didn’t change it. I omitted part of it.” “You can’t do that!” “I can if it’s superfluous.” Jerryck stood to get their attention. “What did I miss?” Tajor turned to him. “Did you notice the blonde in Andreno’s tent? The one who dressed differently than anyone else?” “What of him?” “He was the one I scared off in the Shontese palace,” Tajor said. “He’s been with Andreno this entire time. And what he wore today identified him as one of them.” He pointed to the sleeping raider. Jerryck frowned in confusion. “You weren’t in the village where we caught him. How would you know he’s one of them?” “I don’t know that he specifically assisted in that raid,” Tajor said. “I do know he’s associated with them. He comes from the same place.” “We’re not going to get out of this camp if we all leave at once,” one of the guards said. “Split up,” Tajor ordered. He pointed at three of them. “You go first. Make like you’re wandering around until you can break out. Keep an eye on the edges of the camp for the rest of us to get out too. If we can’t meet up outside, head back and make sure Terrance knows. And that goes for all of us.” One of the guards nudged the prisoner with a toe. “What do we do with him?” “Leave him,” Tajor said. “He’d slow us down. And if we’re sneaking out in twos and threes, we won’t be able to bring him anyway.” The guard posted just outside poked his head in. “A page just delivered a note for Jerryck. It says if he’s feeling more rested, Andreno wants him.” “No,” Tajor said. “If he doesn’t go,” Sinchet said, “Andreno will be insulted. And it’ll make him suspect we’re up to something.” “I’ll go see what he wants,” Jerryck said. “The rest of you can leave. I’ll do the same when he’s done with me.” “This isn’t a good idea,” Tajor said. “You have a better one?” Jerryck asked. They held each other’s eyes for a moment, the worry clear on Tajor’s face. He looked away first. “No.” Jerryck left them, stepping outside where the page waited for him. He followed the lad to the prince’s tent. When they arrived, Andreno whispered something to the page, sending him running off again. “Please, sit.” Andreno offered Jerryck one of the cushions from earlier. The table and all other signs of the meal were gone. Even the people. There weren’t even any guards. “Tajor tells me that Terrance has decided not to punish the mountain barbarians for their crimes against his villages.” “It’s his decision,” Jerryck said as he sat. Then he had to readjust for comfort. That didn’t work, so he fidgeted some more. “You’re right, and I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Andreno replied, waving that away. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, speaking more calmly. “I have a magic using friend you should meet. He’s been looking for someone he can exchange knowledge and techniques with, someone he can teach at the same time he can learn from. I’ve been told you need some time with another magician to satisfy something for the Gathering of Seats. Here’s your opportunity!” “That would officially be a mentor/apprentice relationship.” Jerryck twitched. His feet itched, and shivers crawled up his spine. “I cannot enter into that unless the potential mentor is tested and sufficiently impresses Tajor with his skills.” “My friend won’t try to mentor you.” Andreno clasped his hands behind his back and paced. “He’ll be learning as much from you as you from him.” “The stipulations have been publicly stated.” Jerryck turned his head, tracking Andreno’s movements. “A lot of people have already tried. If I go against this in any way, I’ll have a few dozen angry magicians trampling over each other to get at me.” “Could you convince Tajor to come too?” Andreno crossed behind Jerryck, then back into view again. “It would only be a few days journey from here.” “I have trouble convincing Tajor of anything,” Jerryck said. “I’m not sure it would be worth my time to even try.” “This is rather disappointing.” Andreno circled around. “Why don’t you send your friend to the Brendish palace?” Jerryck asked. “Just warn him first that so far Tajor has only mocked and annoyed anyone trying for the position.” “He tried to come with me that time I went.” Andreno stepped behind Jerryck again. “He got called away on urgent business before I crossed the border.” The tent flap opened. The young blonde entered, followed by another man dressed like him, and carrying a satchel case. Andreno grabbed Jerryck and clapped a hand over his mouth. “Quick!” Andreno shouted, holding both Jerryck’s arms with just his left one. “Use your sleeping medicines!” Neither of the men moved. Their looks of sudden surprise turned into smoldering disgust. Jerryck twisted, trying to loosen Andreno’s grasp. He tried screaming at him to let go. Only a muffled garble came out, completely unintelligible. That would also impede any magic spells. He couldn’t cast anything if he couldn’t get the words out right. The blonde curled his upper lip. “Is this really necessary?” “If he talks, he could use magic against us,” Andreno said. He squeezed tighter against Jerryck’s struggles. “And I can’t hold him very long!” “Then let him go and apologize,” the blonde said. “I’ve had enough of your sass!” Andreno growled. Jerryck twisted one arm free. Andreno shifted his weight, pushing him down to the floor on his stomach, pinning his free arm, still yelling at the blonde. “Just do it! Or I’ll have Ziegfried tell your government to kill your family!” The blonde’s sneer morphed into a look of burning hatred. He turned to the other man dressed like him, and spoke in the same language Tajor had used with the captured raider. The second man eyed Jerryck, sizing him up. He spoke a few more words with his comrade. He set down the leather case with a frown, and extracted a small vial of clear liquid and a needled syringe. Jerryck’s energy gathered on its own. His heartbeat sped up. His stomach did flip-flops. Normally, in a bad situation, he would cast a spell, offensive or defensive. His body reacted the same, even though he couldn’t get any words out for the casting. The man filled the syringe. Andreno pressed in with his full weight, inhibiting Jerryck’s squirming. His collar was pulled back. The needle poked into the muscle above his shoulder. The man emptied the contents. The energy burst. It took the form of waking magic. Ironically, Jerryck now experienced the familiar drain of an accident. His limbs went slack. His eyes closed despite all efforts to keep them open. He started fading and drifting. Hands that moved with the competence of a practiced medic started prodding him, checking his breathing and heartbeat, feeling his pulse, peeling back his eyelids one by one. Strange words floated on the air. “He sleeps.” The voice of the blonde sounded like he spoke from somewhere deep inside a cave. Andreno let go. “Good.”