Matters Of Flora

Life felt louder on Concubine Row, Hieran mused as he passed down the street, letting the wallow of voices settle around him. The call and response of the women from the second-story windows, and their potential customers passing below, mingled with wailing of the hawkers and the general murmur that accompanied any busy city street, all coalescing to form a kind song, both familiar and unpredictable. “All the realm for sale in the Row,” was the saying, true in its way.

He stopped at a stand to buy a quid of aslyn, not staying to chew with the men gathered beneath its ragged awning. His time was not his own this afternoon. While he had recovered from his last incident on the Row, Tehh had been busy. Various agents were dispatched to watch the factors, while others were set at intercepting whatever mail and goods the Currlene House passed into and out of the city. From all this the Adept managed to glean where the second factor and the nephew had been going when Hieran had been attacked and, more important, discovered there was a second meeting planned for today. According to a letter from Pysel, which someone at the Custom House had copied before resealing it and sending on, it was instrumental that both factors attend to “ensure that we are represented in those discussions which will touch upon those matters of flora for which our interest should be obvious.”

A lilac figured prominently in the Lastl family crest, and so there was an obvious conclusion to draw, and Tehh, for once avoiding the arcane, drew it. Before sending him off, the Adept had said, “Mind yourself. If one of them has their heads about them they will have realized you used alkemya when they attacked you. They may have their own Adept or Thaumaturge.”

In other words, do not find yourself in a similar situation as last time. The old bastard had been furious—beyond furious, really—when he had found out how much the matron of the academy expected to be paid for providing sanctuary to his Disciple. It had been paid, though likely not without some bartering, knowing the Adept. And not without the esteem in which Tehh held him falling further, which Hieran had not thought possible, to such depths that even the dead in Ulternon’s Hall could not see.

It was an utter disaster, for the man was legendary for his ability to hold a grudge. He was one of the most influential Adepts on the Council; even the High Adept was careful about crossing swords with him. For twenty years he and Adept Weirn had carried on a feud, each man attempting to smear the other with accusations of false craft, or conspiring to ensure that the finest Disciples and Adepts were given positions outside of the other’s realm of influence. There had been murders as well. All wood to the fire of a feud that no one could recall the prime cause of. Not that it mattered; it was about far more than that now.

He soon found himself retracing his earlier steps, passing the alley where he had been attacked, an eerie sensation overcoming him momentarily. A few streets farther on, as the crowds began to thin and the academies gave way to estates and quarters for mistresses, he found what he was looking for: a large estate, three stories, surrounded by a wall. The gate was chained shut, and as he walked by he could see the shadow cast by the man on watch.

He did not break his stride as he went by, going to the end of the street before turning and making his way down the opposite street behind the estate. There was no one on it, and, when he paused to listen, no voices reached him from any of the surrounding buildings. He approached the estate wall and pulled himself up to peer over. The grounds appeared empty, from what he could see, and several trees offered cover from the main building. Moving quickly, he scrambled up and over the wall, and then across the grounds, darting from tree to tree until he came to the shadow of the estate house, positioning himself beneath a window.

After waiting for a moment to see if he had been observed, he started to search for a way into the estate. There was a door on the far end of the building, but he rejected that outright—better to announce himself at the gate. The windows were a possibility as well, but he thought it likely that the meeting would be held on the main floor, so it seemed best to avoid it if possible. That left the tree beside him, a two-pronged thing, one of its great limbs stretching up and branching off near the building, and, in particular, near a balcony that surely led into someone’s quarters.

Not wanting to risk staying exposed for a moment longer, Hieran started to climb, his heart crashing against his chest as he did. Visions of a dozen swords armed with crossbows and arrows, bolts notched, emerging from within the estate to aim at him as he clung to the tree seized his mind. At least, he thought, he would not have to listen to Tehh’s admonishments any longer, though knowing his luck they would meet in the Hall, where they would be bound together again. It would be his fate, Hieran thought, to have to listen to that fool’s complaints for eternity.

He had to move slowly once he came to where the trunk split into two limbs, at first because he was leery of the noise the branches and leaves might stir, and then, more terrifyingly, because the bough he was on began to dip precipitously, creaking under the strain. He inched forward as far as he dared, each groan from the branch causing his heart to race. Taking a deep—and he hoped steadying—breath, he pushed himself off the bough and dropped onto the balcony. In his panic to get off the branch he nearly missed it entirely, landing awkwardly on the railing, almost spilling off it and onto the ground below.

He pitched himself forward, letting his weight carry him off the railing and onto the balcony, very nearly swearing in the process as his knee twisted underneath him, taking all of his weight, before he remembered himself. When his breathing had steadied enough that he could no longer hear it, he went to the door and, finding it open, stepped into the chambers within. The bedchambers were to his right, the door open, and he went there immediately, after closing the balcony door, to see that it was empty. From there he went to the door that he assumed led to hallway and listened for a moment. Hearing nothing, he opened it, as quietly as he could manage, and peered down the hallway. To his right was a stairway, and he could faintly hear the sound of voices from below.

He listened for a moment, but could make nothing out clearly and so returned to the chambers, searching the cabinets and dressers within. There was a writing desk that he paid particular attention to, but there were no documents within that he could even attach a clear provenance to. It was a typical estate house in the Row—deliberately anonymous. A visit to the Hall of Records had not even managed to conclusively prove who owned the estate, which was hardly surprising. The rooms exhausted and nothing found, Hieran slipped out the door and into the hall. The voices were somewhat louder now; whoever was speaking had clearly moved onto the second floor, and Hieran moved down the stairs toward them trying to see if he could make anything out.

He was nearly halfway down the staircase when one of the voices grew louder and he heard, “I’ll see to it immediately, Nes Ussul.”

He froze where he was almost by instinct, his hand reaching into his robe to confirm that his dagger was still there, even as he thought about the revelation that the Gver’s nephew was present again. It may have saved him, for seconds later the speaker of those words emerged from the room below, stepping out onto the staircase. The next moments passed as slowly as any in Hieran’s life.

He recognized who it was immediately. His face was still marked by the alkemya burns he had received from their struggle in the alley. The man glanced up before he started down the stairs looking, it seemed to Hieran, right at where he was standing, immobile and obvious as the statue of a Qraul in a town square. Somehow, though, the man did not see him, and he turned and continued down, disappearing below.

Hieran stood rooted where he was, knowing he had to move, to hide himself, before the man or someone else came up the stairs and saw him. He tried to urge himself down, to see if he could find some vantage point where he could listen to the meeting. Here, after all, was the proof they needed Ussul and the Currlene were conspiring together. But it was not in him, not this day.

He turned and went back up the stairs, telling himself that he would search the other rooms first, give himself a moment to calm his jangled nerves, but the words sounded hollow even in his mind. He went into the room next to the one he had first entered and saw that it was much the same—an outer chamber leading to a balcony and a bedchamber within. Both were empty as well, and he again went to the writing desk, hoping to find something of use. There was no stray paper on the desk, and when he went to open one of the drawers his hand was shaking so badly it rattled.

After a moment of blind terror, where he feared the whole estate would come down upon him, he turned and left, returning the way he had come, back into the first quarters and onto the balcony, down the tree and over the wall. He was two streets away before the enormity of what he was doing came to him and he stopped, looking down at his hands. They still trembled violently, and he thrust them into his robes and started walking again.

There were two dancers of the Evening he knew who had paid their debts to the faction that spring and now entertained independently nearby. They would certainly be about at this time of day, and if he was lucky no one would have called yet. He started toward the building where they kept their quarters, hoping they would have some aslyn nectar to help pass the afternoon.

—–

A Council of Shadows is the second volume of The Shadow Men, a richly imagined epic fantasy. It will be available in July 2014.

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