My face and body healed up well enough, just in time for the illness to run its course in the camp. No one else came down with it though Ailadas said it was very close for one of the youngest of the Mahid. I wasn’t sure if I cared very much.
The warm weather came and went in that eight-day and I followed every move that 2nd Amitzas demanded of me. He became more smug under his bland face. It seemed to me that his wife grew more grim.
But ever since the Mirror whispered to me, I watched her. Not just her outsides, her dresses and veils. I found myself catching her eyes across the stupidly formal table, when 2nd Amitzas picked a particularly brutal passage from Muunas’s Book to read. Or when Ilesias did something that was funny. I was sure I saw a smile there… a trace of irony hidden behind the veil. She’d come up with strategies for me in the early winter, fought for me in the snow. She was hiding behind the vapid doll face as much as I hid behind the obedient blank. But what was she hiding?
“Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” 2nd Amitzas had sat down to read as he always did, his gloves folded on the book.
“Yes, exalted guardian.” Too much? No, just close enough to flattery that he thinks he’s beaten me into line.
“We will be moving the camp tomorrow evening. I require a plan of action from you. A marching order, a list of what is to be abandoned.”
“Of course, honoured guardian. May I enquire if we have a suspicion of being discovered?” Why move now? The crust on the snow might hold the horses, or slash their legs to ribbons if it does not. There is at least a hard half, or three quarters of a day… and we must take that leg in the day or we will lose someone on the trail.“Should we not wait until the weather is better?”
“I am reliably informed that once the spring rains begin in earnest, and the snow melt starts, we will have mud up to the bellies of the horses to contend with, along with mud-slides possibly wiping out the road. We will take advantage of one of the last freezes.” Of course. This was a choice made with no understanding of the winter? And you must correct it.
"The Spark needn't worry about discovery." Sure. Something has made you decide to move us.
“Which direction does the honourable teacher require me to take once we reach the high road?” South would be sane, toward the coast. Surely there are stretches along this seacoast that are not hotly contested and heavily populated? South would be easier. So… of course…
“North West to the Two Kills Pass.” I opened my mouth to try, gently, to suggest something else. Anything else, but he cut me off. “Two Kills. The Fireborne Tunnel is too well travelled. We would be required to slaughter all the guides and anyone who saw us enter it, or leave it. Too obvious and pointing to us.”
Also adding the weight of the murdered onto my shoulders since they would all be Arkans. Excellent for when I tried to call an army of Arkans to my banner. Politically insane. But crossing any mountain pass at this time of year might kill half a dozen of the weaker members of the party.
“Of course, honoured guardian.”
“To be thorough, come up with a plan for a southward trek as well as the northern one.”
“Certainly, honoured guardian. Are there safe destinations in the mind of my protector, in either way?”
“Excellent, Spark. To the south there is a ruined castle three good eight-days travel. To the north there is a bandit’s lair.”
“And the bandits using this lair?” I couldn’t keep the irony out of my voice. His eyes narrowed.
“They will be no match for Mahid. We would also be replenishing the treasury without drawing attention to ourselves. In this sense we will be doing the Empire good.” Ilesias chose that moment to drop his bowl upside down on the carpet and begin crying because he still wanted it.
Over the noise and bustle of Kaita soothing him and clearing him out of the way so the mess could be cleaned by one of the Mahid, I nodded. “Of a surety, my teacher.”
Perisalas Shefenkas looked down at the stack of reports on his desk and sighed. To take his mind off the frustration he felt, he took up one of the frames on his desk. Where other men had limned pictures of sons, his were different. The first held his manumission papers. Those papers with the new Imperator’s signature and gold seal on them, had changed his life forever. His patent of elevation was in the other frame. From owned slave to free fessas with two strokes of a golden inked pen.
And all because he’d worked for Irefas, even as a slave. In Arko, slaves heard everything. If only his former boss had been like his current boss… He shook his head. This Imperator promotes by merit. Something so valuable for the Empire I must cherish. He found he liked having the name of the current Imperator as a new surname much better than that of his former owner, an Aitzas like most. More money than wisdom. The name ‘Shefenkas’ gave him weight when he conducted investigations.
This investigation was more futile than most. He wiped a non-existent speck of dust off the frame and carefully set it down. Officially he was hunting public-enemy the first. Minis Aan. Officially very important and urgent. Unofficially… not so much…
Belowstairs there were enough rumours to satisfy the most diligent of listeners. Unofficially, the current Imperator was friends with the dangerous malefactor that he, Perisalas, was supposed to be tracking down. If not friends… at least did not wish him executed. There was good evidence in the Pages going back years, all the way to when the current Imperator had been a brand new Mezem slave.
He sighed. It went a great deal toward explaining the gentle promptings from his boss that he needn’t be quite so diligent in attempting to track the Aan boy down. That he should stay within his budget. Which was less than he had expected, having been given such a high profile case. He would still keep sending requests for funding though. He had a job he'd sworn to do.
And the stories. He sighed again and picked up the top one. This one was from near Marsae. Someone had apparently spotted Minis and his troop of Mahid riding through the surf. So all footprints were conveniently erased of course when the local Irefas man went to check. He couldn’t check all the stories personally.
And they were becoming more and more fantastic as time went on. Given another year or two and the troop of Mahid would no doubt transform into seals and dive into the sea. The Mahid spotted in Barcel would fly up and become the crows living near the mystic’s caverns up there.
He leafed through the stack of sightings and sighed. How much credence to give each one? The one where the Heir in hiding rode out of the night and slaughtered the bandits foul who had been preying upon the war-torn land? The one about the Heir and his Mirror riding like trouping fairies through the snow, not leaving a mark upon it?
Wild hunt hounds, the Sleeping Imperators under the Mountains, Moon Riders, Star Sprites, Celestial messengers lost out of their place. All tangled up into one massive knot. It’s my job to find truth in the fantasies. He picked up the next report. It was close enough that he’d be able to ride out and question people himself. Most of the others he would have to request other Irefas to confirm that the witness had, indeed, had too much of the herb pipe or a pint or two too much at the pub.