Authors: Karen Miller
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Magic, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction
For Mary, . who always liked Gar best.
With one callused hand shading his eyes, Asher stood on the Tower’s sandstone steps and watched the touring carriage with its royal cargo and Master Magician Durm bowl down the driveway, sweep around the bend in the road and disappear from sight. Then he heaved a rib-creaking sigh, turned on his heel ad marched back inside. Darran and Willer weren’t about so he left a note saying where Gar had gone and continued on his way.
The trouble with princes he decided, as he thudded up the spiral staircase, was they could go gallivanting off on picnics in the countryside whenever the fancy struck and nobody could stop them. They could say, “Oh look, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, who cares about responsibilities today? I think I’ll go romp amongst the bluebells for an hour or three, tra la tra la.”
And the trouble with working princes, he added to himself as he pushed his study door open and stared in heart-sinking dismay at the piles of letters, memorandums and schedules that hadn’t magically disappeared from his desk while he was gone, damn it, was that you never got to share in that kind of careless luxury. Some poor fool had to care about those merrily abandoned responsibilities, and just now that poor fool went by the name of Asher.
With a gusty sigh he kicked the door shut, slid reluctantly into his chair and got back to work.
Acridly drowning in Meister Glospottle’s pestilent piss problems, he didn’t notice time passing as the day’s light drained slowly from the sky. He didn’t even realize he was no longer alone in his office until a hand pressed his shoulder and a voice said, “Asher? Are you dream-struck? What’s her name?”
Startled, he dropped his pen and spun about in the chair. “Matt! Y’daft blot! You tryin’ to give me a heart spasm?”
“No, I’m trying to get your attention,” said Matt. He was half grinning, half concerned. “I knocked and knocked till I bruised my knuckles and then I called your name. Twice. What’s so important it’s turned you deaf?”
“Urine,” he said sourly. “You got any?”
Matt blinked. “Well, no. Not on me. Not as such.”
“Then you’re no bloody use. You might as well push off.”
The thing he liked best about Matt was the stable meister’s reassuring aura of unflappability. A man could be as persnickety as he liked and all Matt would ever do was smile. The way he was smiling now. “And if I ask why you’re in such desperate need of urine, will I be sorry?”
Suddenly aware of stiff muscles and a looming headache, Asher shoved his chair back and stomped around his office. Ha! His cage. “Prob’ly. I know I bloody am. Urine’s for gettin’ rid of into the nearest chamber pot, not for hoardin’ like a miser with gold.”
Matt was looking bemused. “Since when did you have the urge to hoard urine?”
“Since never! It’s bloody Indigo Glospottle’s got the urge, not me.”
“I know I’ll regret asking this, but how in Barl’s name could any man have a shortage of urine?”
“By bein’ too clever for his own damned good, that’s how!” He propped himself on the windowsill, scowling. “Indigo Glospottle fancies himself something of an
y’see. Good ole-fashioned cloth dyein’ like his da did, and his da’s da afore him, that ain’t good enough for Meister Indigo Glospottle. No. Meister Indigo Glospottle’s got to go and think up
ways of dyein’ cloth and wool and suchlike, ain’t he?”
“Well,” said Matt, being fair, “you can’t blame the man for trying to improve his business.”
“Yes, I can!” he retorted. “When him improvin’ his business turns into me losin’ precious sleep over another man’s urine, you’d better bloody believe I can!” Viciously mimicking, he screwed up his face into Indigo Glospottle’s permanently piss-strangled expression and fluted his voice in imitation. “‘Oh, Meister Asher! The blues are so blue and the reds are so red! My customers can’t get enough of them! But it’s all in the piddle, you see!” Can you believe it? Bloody man can’t even bring himself to say piss! He’s got to say
Like that’ll mean it don’t stink as much. “I need more
Meister Asher! You must find me more
Because the thing is, y’see, these precious new ways of his use up twice as much piss as the old ways, don’t they? And since he’s put all the other guild members’ noses out of joint with his fancy secret dyein’ recipe, they’ve pulled strings to make sure he can’t get all the urine he needs. Now he reckons the only way he’s goin’ to meet demand is by going door to door with a bucket in one hand and a bottle in the other sayin’, ‘Excuse me, sir and madam, would you care to make a donation?’ And for some strange reason, he ain’t too keen on that idea!”
Matt gave a whoop of laughter and collapsed against the nearest bit of empty wall. “Asher!”
Despite his irritation, Asher felt his own lips twitch. “Aye, well, I s’pose I’d be laughin’ too if the fool hadn’t gone and made
problem. But he has, so I ain’t much in the mood for feelin’ amused just now.”
Matt sobered. “I’m sorry. It all sounds very vexing.”
“It’s worse than that,” he said, shuddering. “If I can’t get Glospottle and the guild to reach terms, the whole mess’ll end up in Justice Hall. Gar’ll skin me alive if that happens. He’s got himself so caught up in his magic the last thing he wants is trouble at Justice Hall. Last thing I want is trouble at Justice Hall, ‘cause the way he’s been lately he’ll bloody tell me to take care of it.
Sittin’ in that gold chair in front of all those folk, passing judgment like I know what I’m on about! I never signed up for Justice Hall. That’s Gar’s job. And the sooner he remembers that, and forgets all this magic codswallop, the happier I’ll be.”
The smile faded from Matt’s face. “What if he can’t forget—or doesn’t want to? He’s the king’s firstborn son and he’s found his magic, Asher. Everything’s different now. You know that.”
Asher scowled. Aye, he knew it. But that didn’t mean he had to like it. Or think about it overmuch, either. Damn it, he wasn’t even supposed to be here! He was supposed to be down south on the coast arguing with Da over the best fishing boat to buy and plotting how to outsell his sinkin’ brothers three to one. Dorana was meant to be a fast-fading memory by now.
But that dream was dead and so was Da, both smashed to pieces in a storm of ill luck. And he was stuck here, in the City. In the Tower. In his unwanted life as Asher the bloody Acting Olken Administrator. Stuck with Indigo bloody Glospottle and his stinking bloody piss problems.
He met Matt’s concerned gaze with a truculent defiance. “Different for him, but not for me. He pays me, Matt. He don’t own me.”
“No. But in truth, Asher, the way things stand for you now—where else could you go?”
Matt’s tentative question stabbed like a knife. “Anywhere I bloody like! My brothers don’t own me any more than Gar does! I’m back here for now, not for good. Zeth or no Zeth, I were born a fisherman and I’ll die one like my da did afore me.”
“I hope you do, Asher,” Matt said softly. ‘There are worse ways to die, I think.” Then he shook himself free of melancholy. “Now. Speaking of His Highness, do you know where he is? We’ve a meeting planned but I can’t find him.”
“Did you look in his office? His library?” Matt huffed, exasperated. “I looked everywhere.” “Ask Darran. When it comes to Gar the ole fart’s got eyes in the back of his head.”
“Darran’s out. But Willer’s here, the pompous little weasel, and he hasn’t seen His Highness either. He said something about a picnic?”
Asher shifted on the windowsill and looked outside. Late afternoon sunshine gilded the trees’ autumn-bronzed leaves and glinted off the stables’ rooftops. “That was hours ago. They can’t still be at the Eyrie. They didn’t have that much food with ‘em, and it only takes five minutes to admire the view. After that it’s just sittin’ around makin’ small talk and pretendin’ Fane don’t hate Gar’s guts, ain’t it? Prob’ly they went straight back to the palace and he’s locked hisself up in the magic room with Durm and forgotten all about you.”
“No, I’m afraid he hasn’t.”
Darran. Pale and self-contained, he stood in the open doorway. Nothing untoward showed in his face, but Asher felt a needle of fright prick him between the ribs. He exchanged glances with Matt, and slid off the windowsill. “What?” he said roughly. “What’re you witterin’ on about now?”
“I am not wittering,” Darran replied. “I’ve just come back from business at the palace. The royal family and the Master Magician are not there. Their carriage has yet to return.”
Again, Asher glanced out of the window into the rapidly cooling afternoon. “Are you sure?”
Darran’s lips thinned. “Perfectly.”
Another needle prick, sharper this time. “So what’re you sayin’? You sayin’ they got lost between here and Salbert’s Eyrie?”
Darran’s hands were behind his black velvet back. Something in the set of his shoulders suggested they were clutched tightly together. “I am saying nothing. I am asking if you can think of a reason why the carriage’s return might have been so severely delayed. His Majesty was expected for a public park committee meeting an hour ago. There was some … surprise … at his absence.”
Asher bit off a curse. “Don’t tell me you ran around bleatin’ about the carriage bein’ delayed! You know what those ole biddies are like, Darran, they’ll—”
“Of course I didn’t. I’m old but not yet addled,” said Darran. “I informed the committee that His Majesty had been detained with Prince Gar and the Master Magician in matters of a magical nature. They happily accepted the explanation, the meeting continued without further disruption and I returned here immediately.”
Grudgingly, Asher gave a nod of approval. “Good.”
“And now I’ll ask you again,” said Darran, unimpressed by the approval. “Can you think of any reason why the carriage hasn’t yet returned?”
The needle was stabbing quick and hard now, in time with his pounding heart. “Could be a wheel came off, held ‘em up.”
Darran snorted. “Any one of them could fix that in a matter of moments with a spell.” “He’s right,” said Matt.
“Lame horse, then. A stone in the shoe, or a twisted fetlock.”
Matt shook his head. “His Highness would’ve ridden the other one back here to get a replacement.”
“You’re being ridiculous, Asher,” said Darran. “Clutching at exceedingly flimsy straws. So I shall say aloud what we all know we’re thinking. There’s been an accident.”
“Accident my arse!” he snapped. “You’re guessin’, and guessin’ wrong, I’ll bet you anything you like. What kind of an accident could they have trotting to Salbert’s Eyrie and back, eh? We’re talking about all the most powerful magicians in the kingdom sittin’ side by side in the same bloody carriage! There ain’t an accident in the world that . could touch ‘em!”
“Very well,” said Darran. “The only other explanation, then, is … not an accident.”
It took Asher a moment to realize what he meant.
Don’t be daft! As if anybody would—as if there were even a reason—y’silly ole fool! Flappin’ your lips like laundry on a line! They’re late, is all. Got ‘emselves sidetracked! Decided to go sightseeing further on from the Eyrie and got all carried away! You’ll see! Gar‘11 be bouncing up the staircase any minute now! You’ll see!”
There was a moment of held breaths, as all three of them waited for the sound of eager, tapping boot heels and a charming royal apology.
“Look, Asher,” said Matt, smiling uneasily, “you’re most likely right. But to put Darran’s mind at rest, why don’t you and I ride out to the Eyrie? Chances are we’ll meet them on their way back and they’ll have a good old laugh at us for worrying.”
“An excellent suggestion,” said Darran. “I was about to make it myself. Go now. And if—when—you do encounter them, one of you ride back here immediately so I may send messages to the palace in case tactless tongues are still wagging.”
Scowling, Asher nodded. He didn’t know which was worse: Darran being right or the needle of fright now lodged so hard and deep in his flesh he could barely breathe.
“Well?” demanded Darran. He sounded almost shrill.
“Why are you both still standing there like tree stumps?
Twenty minutes later they were cantering in circumspect silence along the road that led to Salbert’s Eyrie. The day’s slow dying cast long shadows before them.
“There’s the sign for the Eyrie,” shouted Matt, jerking his chin as they pounded by. “It’s getting late, Asher. We should’ve met them by now. This is the only road in or out and the gates at the turn-off were still closed. Surely the king would’ve left them open if they’d gone on somewhere else from here?”
“Maybe,” Asher shouted back. His cold hands tightened on the reins. “Maybe not. Who can tell with royalty? At least there’s no sign of an accident.”
“So far,” said Matt.
They urged their horses onwards with ungentle heels, hearts hammering in time with the dull hollow drumming of hooves. Swept round a gradual, left-handed bend into a stretch of road dotted either side with trees.