Magics promise vlhm 2, p.24

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2, page 24

 part  #2 of  Valdemar (02): Last Herald Mage Series

 

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2
 



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  Truth to tell, I hope he was good in bed, because he surely had a voice like a crow in mating season, and maybe four whole chords to his name."

  Valdir thought about the way Bel had tried to come on to him, and could actually feel a shred of sympathy for the unknown minstrel. "Were you waiting out here for me?” Valdir asked, as they approached the closed door of The Pig and Stick, the tavern Renfry had been playing in last night.

  Renfry nodded, holding the door to "his" inn open.

  "Why?"

  "To warn you, like I said. Let you know you'd better make tracks."

  Valdir shook his head, and his hair fell over one eye. "I can't. I - I haven't got a choice," he confessed sadly. "I haven't anywhere else to go."

  Renfry paused in surprise, half in, half out of the doorway. “That lean in the pocket?" he asked. "Lad, you aren't that bad. You're a good enough musician, for true. Unless you really made more than just a mistake."

  Valdir nodded unhappily. "Made a bad enemy. Sang the wrong song at the wrong time. Used to be with a House. Now I've got the clothes on my back, my lute, and that's mostly it."

  "Save your coppers and head over the Border into Valdemar," the other advised. "Tell you what, I'll stand you a drink and a little better breakfast than you'd get from old Bel, then I'll steer you over to a decent corner. Not the best, but with the palace a wreck, there's a, lot of guards standing about with nothing to do but make sure our High and Mighty Lord Visitor doesn't get himself in the way of a stray knife round about the Town Elder's house. You ought to collect a bit there, hmm?" He grinned. "Besides, I got an underhanded motive. You're about as good as me, and you know some stuff new to our folk. I'm going to bribe you with food to learn it, and then I'm going to get you out of town so you aren't competition anymore."

  Valdir smiled back hesitantly, at least as far as his sore cheek permitted. "Now that I understand!"

  By nightfall Bel was sober, and when Valdir crept in at the open door she waved him to his place on the hearth with nothing more threatening than a scowl. He sat down on the raised brick hearth with his bruised cheek to the fire, and began tuning the lute. There were one or two customers; nothing much. Valdir was just as glad; it gave him a chance to think over what he'd picked up.

  It had been a very profitable day. The Town Elder's servants were entertainment-starved and loose-tongued; once Valdir had gotten them started they generally ran on quite informatively and at some length before demanding something in return.

  Ylyna had been a child-bride; that made Tashir's arrival eight-and-a-half months after the wedding so much more surprising. Several of the Mavelan girls had been offered as prospective treaty-spouse, but of them all, only Ylyna had lacked mage-powers, so only Ylyna had been acceptable to Deveran Remoerdis or his people. It was generally agreed that she was "odd, even for a Mavelan." And strangely enough, it was also generally agreed that up until the night of the massacre Tashir had been a fairly decent, if slightly peculiar, young man. "A bit like you, lad," one of the guards had said. "Jumpin' at shadows, like. Nervy." If it had not been for his mage-powers there likely would have been no objection to his eventual inheritance of the throne of Lineas. But once those powers manifested, it became out of the question. No Linean would stand by and see a mage take the seat of power.

  "We seen what comes o' that, yonder," an aged porter had told him a bit angrily, pointing with his chin at the north. "Put a mage in power, next thing ye know, he's usin' magic t' get any damn thing 'e want out 'o ye. No. No mages here."

  So as soon as it had become evident that several of Tashir's younger brothers - all of whom markedly resembled Deveran - were going to live into adulthood, the Council demanded that Deveran disinherit the boy. They didn't have to pressure him, according to the Lord Elder's first chambermaid; he gave in at once, so quickly that the ink wasn't even dry on the copies of the proclamation when his heralds cried the news.

  And strangely enough, Tashir didn't seem the least unhappy about it. "Didn”xactly jump for joy, but didn' seem t' care, neither," a fruitseller had observed.

  Lord Vedric - that was who Valdir assumed was the "Lord Visitor," though he was never referred to as anything but "that Mavelan Lord" - had come as something of a surprise to the folk of Highjorune. They'd expected him to attempt to defend Tashir; instead he'd listened to the witnesses with calm and sympathy, and had expressed his horrified opinion that the boy had gone rogue. He'd kept displays of magery to a minimum, and had made himself available to the Council as a kind of advisor until someone figured out how to get Tashir back to be punished, and until they determined who the new ruler of Lineas would be.

  As for the startling resemblance between Lord Vedric and Tashir -

  " 'E said th' boy could be 'is, 'e didn't know," one of the chambermaids - a pretty one that Valdir suspected of getting gossip fodder via pillow talk - had whispered, sniggering, to Valdir. " 'E said th' girl couldn' keep 'er skirts down, an' that she'd bribed 'er way inta lots o' beds, takin' the place o' th' girls as was s'pposed t' be there. Said 'e'd found 'er in 'is bed more'n once, an' that 'e didn't know it were 'is own 'alf-sister an' not the wench 'e'd called fer till mornin'. That was why 'e were tryin' t' keep th' boy heir, so 'e says; tryin' t' do right by 'im, like, just in case." She sniggered again. “I 'card 'nough fr'm m' cousin 'bout 'Er 'Ighness an”er light-skirt ways I believe'im."

  And the cousin, it seemed, had been one of Ylyna's personal maids. More importantly, she had been out of the palace the night everyone else had been killed. The chambermaid had promised an introduction in a day or two.

  "You gonna sit there all night diddlin' that thing, or you gonna play?" Bel growled, breaking into his thoughts. With a start and a cowed look, he began playing.

  The young girl scampered back to her duties, leaving Valdir alone with the last surviving member of the palace staff, her cousin. The woman pondered him for a moment, then, a trifle reluctantly, invited him into her tiny parlor. The cousin was old; that surprised Valdir. And the odd look she gave him as he took the seat she indicated surprised him more.

  "Why are ye askin', lad?" she queried, as she settled into her own chair. "If it's just morbid curiosity..."

  He rubbed the bruise Bel had gifted him with this morning - it matched the first - and tried to get her measure. She was a bit younger than Savil, and small, but proudly erect. There was something very dignified about her, and out of keeping with her purported position; she didn't hold herself with the air of a servant. She was plainly clothed, in dark wool dress and white linen undertunic, but the wool was fine lambswool, tightly woven, and costly, and the linen as fine as he had ever seen on his mother. She watched him from under half-closed lids. Her eyes seemed full of secrets.

  She had been out of the palace that fatal evening, the girl had told him, because she had been here, in the home of her aged mother, who had fallen and could not be left alone at night. There was a great deal about her that prompted Valdir to trust in her honesty; enough that he decided to tell her a certain measure of the truth.

  "I want to find out what really happened," he said, as sincerely as he could manage. "The stories I've heard so far don't make a lot of sense. If there's something that needs to be told, perhaps I'm the one to tell it. A minstrel can tell an unpleasant truth with more success, sometimes, than anyone else. I'm a stranger, with no interests to protect. It might be I'd be believed more readily than a Linean."

  She looked away from him, and her face was troubled. "I don't know," she said, finally. "This ..." She looked down at her hands, and her attention seemed to be caught by a ring she wore.

  It was an unusual ring in the fact that it was so very plain; burnished, unornamented silver, centered with a dull white stone. The stone was nothing Valdir recognized; it looked like an ordinary, water-worn quartz pebble.

  Then her attention was more than caught -

  The stone flared with an internal, white flame for a moment, and it seemed that she could not look away from it.

/>   The woman's face took on a blankness of expression he'd only seen in the spell-bound.

  Valdir felt the back of his neck chill. There was a Power moving somewhere, one he didn't recognize. He longed to be able to unshield and probe, and maddeningly knew he dared not. This felt almost like someone was working a Truth Spell, only the feel of this was old – old -

  "Lady Ylyna-" she said, in a strangely abstracted voice. "At the bottom of this, it all comes down to Lady Ylyna."

  "Tashir's mother?" Valdir asked, biting his lip in vexation when it occurred to him that his words might break whatever spell it was that held her. But her expression remained rapt, and he ventured more. "But – how -"

  "She was hardly more than a child when she came here," the woman said, still gazing into the stone of her ring, "but I've never seen a more terrified girl in my life. She'd been the ignored one, until Deveran refused to take any girl to wife that had mage-powers. Then she was valuable, and you can believe her family kept the strings on her. She was terrified of them. She was so happy when she was first pregnant - Deveran made a great deal of her, you see. But then Tashir came early - there was no telling him that it was just accident the boy looked like his uncle. So he only came to her to get her pregnant, and once pregnant, he ignored her until the children were born."

  "But - "

  She didn't seem to hear him. "He ignored the boy, too. She was scarcely old enough to have left off with dolls, she hadn't a clue what to do with a child. Then the letters started coming - letters from Baires, with the royal seal on them, from The Mavelan. She never let us see them, but they terrified her. And she took it all out on the boy. The other children, the ones that took after Deveran, they had nursemaids, and careful watching, but not Tashir. He was left to her. Poor child. Half the time she petted and cosseted him like a lapdog - that was when her letters seemed to be good. The other half of the time she'd take a riding crop to him till the poor boy was bruised all over. That was when the letters frightened her. Then the boy started showing wizard-power, and it got worse. I watched her watching him one day - I've never seen such jealousy in my life on a human face."

  "Why would she be jealous of him?" Valdir wondered aloud.

  The old woman shook herself, and gave him a sharp look. "I've said more than I intended," she told him, almost accusingly.

  He tried to look innocent and trustworthy. "But what you've said is important.''

  She rose and walked slowly across the tiny sitting room to the door, and opened it. "Come back in two days," she said, in tones that brooked no argument. "I may decide to tell you more then."

  Nearly ready to burst with frustration, Valdir left, doing his best to show none of it.

  She shut the door behind him, and he wandered back down to the Row, looking for a good place to set out his hat for a few more hours.

  He still had to eat, after all.

  :How much of this can you trust?: Yfandes asked.

  :Well, I'm hardly going to be able to run Truth Spell on her,: he replied, staring up into the darkness and listening to old Petar snoring loud enough to shake the chimney down. :Although-gods help me, it seems as if something was doing that for me. And you have to admit, this report of alternate petting and abuse certainly explains some of his reaction toward women. Mothers in particular.:

  :But it doesn't explain what happened that night.:

  One of the two girls murmured in her sleep. Vanyel shivered, and pulled his blanket a little closer. The cold of the dirt floor was seeping through his thin straw pallet :There's more. I know there's more. I think she - or whatever it was that made her talk - is testing me, and I don't know why. Gods, and the questions I have - why allow only blood relations to serve the Remoerdis Family? And why does it feel as if the old lady is - Gifted? Or geased, bespelled. Or both, I don't know. And I don't dare test her to find out, with Vedric in the city:

  :Mm,: she agreed. :Wise. What's he up to?:

  :Being utterly charming,: Valdir replied. :He's got the locals coming more and more over to his side. And he's agreeing with them on every point. It's hard to believe that this is the same man my sister called a viper.:

  :Interesting. And these Lineans are a hard-headed lot.:

  :It would just about take an angel to change their minds about the Mavelans,: Vanyel told her. :But Vedric seems to be doing just that.:

  Petar snorted, coughed, and turned over. There was silence for a moment, then he snorted again, and the snores did not resume.

  :Take the chance to get to sleep while you can,: Yfandes advised dryly.

  But sleep refused to come.

  Tonight had been particularly bad. Not only had Bel made another try, but Valdir had fended off the attentions of someone else as well.

  Even if he hadn't taken Bel's glare as warning that she meant what she'd said about not taking up with her customers, he'd have avoided this one. Shaych, yes - but in a way that made Valdir's skin crawl as much as Bel did. The man hadn't been physically repulsive, but there was something twisted about him, something unhealthy. Like a fine velvet glove over a taloned hand. The man had looked at him with a hunger that made him shiver with reaction even now. He had reminded Vanyel - not Valdir - of the mage that had called himself "Krebain."

  I don't know what to think anymore. If I'm not shaych, then why can't I just do what Bel wants and get it over with? If I am, then why did that hunter revolt me? He turned onto his side, curling into a ball against the cold, the ache of his empty stomach, the misery his own uncertainty was causing.

  And today - gods. That sick little game I was playing on the serving girls. Leading them on - knowing I was leading them right down a dead end. Yes, I got information - but I was actually enjoying deluding them, having a little power over them. Gods, that was sick. And I would have gone right on playing little sex-flirtation games if 'Fandes hadn 't threatened to kick me into next week. I'm turning into something I don't much like.

  He curled up a little tighter. I don't even know my own feelings any more.

  He tightened his lips in exasperation. Look, Van, you’re supposed to have been trained in logic. So why don't you try putting things into some kind of category, you goose? Maybe you don't know what you feel, but you certainly know what you don't feel. You 've been agonizing over that enough lately! Then figure out what it is that everything you don't care for has in common.

  : It's about time,: came Yfandes' sardonic comment.

  He was startled - and then angry. He very nearly made some kind of nasty retort back to her, but she was blocking, and he wasn't so angry that he'd try to breach her shields just to tell her off. For one thing, he wasn't sure he could - for another, the attempt might give him away to Vedric.

  But he certainly wanted to...

  The next several days were some of the worst Valdir had ever spent. He played his fingers to the bone every night until the last customer left. He dodged Bel, not always successfully, by day. He took her beatings with teeth-gritting meekness, avoided her increasingly heavy-handed attempts to trap him, and did his best to minimize the damage she inflicted. He was cold at night, and starved by day; Bel's idea of "meals" being scarcely enough to keep a mouse alive. And his own unhappy thoughts kept him awake more often than not.

  He went back to the former maid Reta's tiny house faithfully every two days, only to be turned away with nothing.

  Then, finally, after close to a fortnight - an endless series of attempts to see the old woman and being turned away from her door - Reta finally agreed to speak with him again.

  "I wasn't sure you'd be back." Reta held the door open for him, and he slipped past her into the tiny, painfully neat sitting room. She closed the door carefully, and sat down on her settle beside the hearth. Valdir took the only other seat, a stool. The old woman regarded him thoughtfully while he curbed his impatience, and hoped that this time some more information would be forthcoming.

  "No, I wasn't certain you'd be back," she repeated.

  "Why wouldn't I?" h
e asked, just as quietly, as he ignored the hollow feeling in his stomach. He'd been here long enough that the meager rations and short sleep were beginning to affect him, and while he'd recharged his mage - energies fully, his physical energies were becoming exhausted. He woke up five and six times a night, cramping with cold, and even with the supplementary food he was spending his pittance of earnings on, he was beginning to have spells of light-headedness. Most of his money was going to buy Yfandes grain, anyway. But Reta held the key, he was sure of it. If only he could persuade her to part with the information. Her - or whatever power had controlled her the first time he came to her door.

  "This isn't a tale of high adventure," she pointed out dryly. "And it isn't a bedroom farce. It's not terribly interesting, it's not good song-fodder, and it's sad."

  "Sad?" He raised an eyebrow. "Why sad?"

  She examined the hands she held folded in her lap, as if they were of great interest. "That poor child Ylyna, she never really had a chance to grow up. Oh, she was grown in body, but - They kept her a child, a frightened child they could manipulate. I find that sad."

 
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