ALTHOUGH SHE THOUGHT Kami and Rook long dead, Avestine continued to send scouts into the Fulbern Forest, even as far away as the Katan Ri. One scout returned with some evidence of a struggle—pieces torn from black tunics in an area that had witnessed a run of mounts, but nothing to confirm what happened.
The scout also reported some movement by the Sovereignty, which had expanded the borders of one of their outposts. Avjakar, too, seemed to be trying to steal territory from Arrowreign’s iceward borders. Hamran had never arrived, clever enough to assess the situation before he wasted another two weeks’ march. Although Avestine had sent messengers under flags of truce to each city, neither had yet returned.
Such tedious gamesmanship became the bane of her existence. She hated political maneuverings, although she had learned much about succeeding in them. On the other hand, Gerard was a natural diplomat. He could judge an adversary’s resolve, and he had immense patience, a quality she had appreciated in Rook. She always made an effort to keep such clear minds near.
She was coming to trust Gerard’s judgment as a man both insightful and loyal. He predicted the Sovereignty and Avjakar would maintain their passive-aggressive approach for some time to come. She agreed, assuming they would wait to see if Darklaw would return, which would become the perfect time to launch an attack at her back. Such tactics made her despise Severesh, when she had merely disrespected him before.
“It may not be his choice at all,” said Gerard as they discussed Hamran and the Sovereignty.
Avestine nodded with a full mouth as she sat eating at her table. “I think we should woo him.”
“Is there anything that would make a man leave his tribe, his family, to serve a stranger? Your family left the Tribes for Avjakar. Why?”
Gerard stroked his wispy black beard. “Men of the Waste are ambitious, as you well know. Severesh promised my father land. You promised me power. I didn’t have a family, so that never mattered. It might matter to Hamran. He’s also a chieftain, and accustomed to giving orders, so he may not be one who can bend his back.”
“But if there is anyone who can teach him, it’s you.” She sensed him prickle.
“I would be glad to show him what he would be missing.” He rose to leave.
She stopped him. “I have another matter. A question. What can you tell me about opium?”
Gerard’s eyes sparkled, an expression she had never seen on the somber man. He sat back down.
“I’d heard a rumor some had been brought to Ureth Mourning,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was you.”
“You have spies?”
“Just helpful eyes. There’s a certain room in the lower chambers where a pot remains smoldering much of the time.”
She nodded approvingly. “Helpful eyes are…helpful. But I didn’t bring nearly so much as to keep a pot smoldering. I suggest we have an enterprising man somewhere that we should find. You’ll see to it?”
“I understand your people use opium as a second currency. Tell me more about it.”
“Have you tried it?”
She shook her head. “I’ve heard you mix it with tobacco and it softens the nerves. I thought I’d let my servant try it, a girl too nervous to be of much use to me.”
“The Wasteland has poor soil, but everywhere there grows a particular flower, that once cut, produces a sap. The sap hardens into crystals that a man can heat into powder or eat. It’s a medicine for many things—fevers and possession and pain. It’s said a man can have a foot amputated and not feel it if he’s smoked a pipe. Our shamans use it because it allows them to speak with the gods.”
“Have you tried it?”
“When I was a young man, we used it in ceremonies. Now it’s more of a commodity. As you say: a currency.” He sighed wistfully. “A pleasure, I assure you. Do you have it here in this room?”
“I’ll have it brought, and you can show me how it’s used.” She noted his excitement. “In a few days.”
After he had gone, a messenger arrived with news from another scout. They had found a man’s body.
Her personal guard escorted her to the stables. The scout explained the body was found in a ravine, little left but bones and ragged clothing. Servants removed the tarp, releasing the mangled body, though the smell had been wafting free for some time.
With a hand over her nose, Avestine bent near, studying the eroded face. She tried to see Rook as she remembered him—strong and vital, but she couldn’t see such things in this body. She didn’t need to check for hands.
“Not him.” She drew the tarp back over the face.
Published in Darklaw |
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