Lady of Shadows - Part 23
Prologue and Other Parts
This was not going as I had planned.
“As you did not arrive with an army, might I assume you are not here to arrest my nephew?” Lord Talib’s voice was so soft as to be almost a whisper. His pale eyes seemed to look past me, and I wondered if perhaps he were blind.
“That is correct, Lord Talib.” I kept my voice steady, while I desperately tried to work out what was going on here. Clearly, Bayl had betrayed me. It should not have come as such a surprise: he must have realised the potential danger to Enamdis when I informed my lord and husband of Neren’s treasonous allegiance, as he would have well known was my duty. He had come here to warn them of who I really was, or perhaps only to warn Enamdis in the misguided hopes that she would flee. That explained the carrikal. So, was Bayl being held prisoner? Did Talib think to bargain his life for Neren’s? Or had Bayl given the carrikal to Mei as a gift?
Lord Talib blinked slowly. “I apologise for my shockingly poor manners, Consort. Please, sit. Refreshments shall be brought.” He motioned languidly to a nearby couch.
This all seemed far too casual, given the circumstances, but at least walking over to the couch gave me a few more moments to think. Iblis and Alborn followed me, but remained standing, their hands very obviously on their weapons, flanking me as I sat down. They had even less understanding of what was happening than I did, but they’d be used to that. We templars rarely give our servants the full picture, in case it inadvertently encourages them to think.
I decided obfuscation was pointless. “Where is Bayl,” I asked. “I trust he has not been harmed?” I did not trouble to hide my anger. As yet, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was truly worried for Bayl’s safety, or whether I just didn’t want to miss the opportunity to express my displeasure at his betrayal to him in person. From a purely rational point of view (and I have always prided myself on my ability to put emotion aside and focus on the rational), I had little cause to be surprised at what he had done. But it still hurt.
Enamdis opened her mouth to snarl something at me, but Neren’s hand on her arm seemed to restore her self-control. She went back to glaring balefully. I could sense Mei’s attention on me too, though she continued to stare at her feet.
“I assure you, your mul appeared quite healthy the last time I saw him. I think he intended to become very drunk in the near future, however, so I would imagine he is currently sampling the finest broy the Western District has to offer.” Lord Talib’s eyes sparkled with amusement; he was enjoying my discomfort entirely too much. At least Neren had the decency to look a little embarrassed at his uncle’s mocking tone.
At that moment, the dark-haired servant reappeared with an overburdened ebony tray. She placed it carefully upon a low agafari-wood table at the side of the room and began pouring the contents of a blue glass carafe into several small beakers. I hesitated to accept the beaker she handed to me, but refusing hospitality would be taken as a grave insult, and it was unlikely Lord Talib would be stupid enough to try to poison a templar in his own manor. It turned out to contain a pleasantly sweet spiced fruit cordial I did not recognise.
“I trust it is to your liking, Consort?” Lord Talib murmured. “We have wine, if you would prefer, but we rarely drink wine or liquor in this household.”
I knew that some practitioners of the Way avoided all intoxicating liquor, claiming that it interfered with their powers, though I had never seen any compelling evidence to support the theory. High Consort Siemhouk had always dismissed the idea, and some psionically gifted templars even claimed that imbibing a mixture of wine and hallucinogenic spices could actually heighten their abilities. Like many of the cultural refinements practiced by the effete nobles of our city, I suspected this was just another vain affectation.
Lord Talib raised his own beaker. “To your husband’s good health. May his wise and munificent rule last a hundred thousand years.” There was more than a hint of insincerity in his voice, but it was not something I could reasonably take offence to. He took a sip, smiled, and said, “So, you are here to make some request of us?”
“Not a request, no, Lord Talib.” I kept my gaze fixed on his pale and distant eyes, refusing to look at his nephew, but I could sense Neren’s curiosity all the same. “I am here to inform you, as a courtesy only, that I will be taking one of your house’s silt skimmers, along with its crew and all necessary supplies, for as long as my mission may require.”
I paused for a moment to let that sink in – and, I must admit, to enjoy the expressions of shock on their faces. Even Mei was looking at me now. Oddly, she seemed less surprised than the others.
“I will also be taking your nephew, as an advisor on matters concerning the Way. We leave at dawn tomorrow.”
“This… this is impossible!” Lord Talib spluttered. “All our silt skimmers are required for legitimate trading purposes. Surely the King would not wish there to be such an unwarranted interference with the economic function of our great city, especially with war against Gulg brewing?”
Neren had taken the news rather better than his uncle. He raised his beaker to his lips and sipped at it guardedly while he waited for his uncle to run out of words.
“Your objections are noted, Lord Talib,” I said dryly. “Fortunately, I only require your cooperation, not your enthusiasm.”
“Neren isn’t going anywhere without me to watch his back,” Enamdis growled. “Especially not with you.”
The half-giant looked ready to say more, but Neren coughed politely and stepped forward. “I have no objection to travelling with you, Consort Ysuun,” he said, his voice soft and his eyes bright. He obviously welcomed the prospect of travelling with me. I should have found that troubling, but instead it sent a thrill of warmth through my chest.
“Your mother will skin me alive, boy!” Lord Talib objected, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it any more. He turned back towards me. “I must insist the half-giant goes with him. As a…” For a moment, I was sure he was going to say ‘chaperone’, but then he finished, rather lamely, “… as Neren’s bodyguard. He is the designated heir of this house.”
Neren smiled and placed a hand on his uncle’s bony shoulder, his other on Enamdis’ forearm. “I am sure I will be in no great danger. I did tell you that you were worrying unnecessarily. Nevertheless, I also wish Enamdis to accompany me, not as a bodyguard but as my friend. Besides, I assume Bayl will be coming with us as well, Consort?”
Enamdis seemed to stiffen slightly for a moment at that, but it might have been my imagination. I had to smile; Neren had trapped me quite neatly. It would have been disrespectful to House Mentsu to refuse such a reasonable request. I could hardly refuse to bring Bayl along, which meant I would have no opportunity to have him punished for his betrayal. Oddly enough, I actually had not really thought about punishing Bayl. If this had happened even just a few short days ago, I’d probably have had him dragged before the Servants’ Assizes in the Temple of the King’s Law to face, at the very least, a flogging. Now, even though his disloyalty stung, I found myself making excuses for him. Just as I did for Neren.
“It seems the situation is resolved, Lord Talib,” I said, trying to regain control of the conversation. “Your nephew is free to bring anyone he likes, so long as there is room enough on the silt skimmer. I am afraid I cannot guarantee that he will be in no danger, however.”
“At least tell me where you are taking him,” Talib pleaded. “For his mother’s sake.”
I glanced at Neren. He met my gaze steadily.
“I am quite sure your nephew already knows, Lord Talib. I will leave it to him to tell his mother, or not, as he feels best.”