A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1) (7 page)

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
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"I would make the small bow and say, 'Esteemed sir, I bring word for your most gracious Lady Mylazhe Ambhere from my respected mistress the Lady Ycevi Ghytteve.'"

"Yes," Myncerre said; before she could pose another question, someone hailed her.

"Why, my esteemed Myncerre."

She and Owl both turned. The man who had spoken was richly dressed, a Council Lord's chain of office bright against the deep blue of his tunic. A small, pointed beard accented the narrow elegance of his features. His dark hair had silvered at the temples, lending an air of age and wisdom. His tone was dry to the point of insolence.

"Most gracious Lord of Azhere. How may I be of service?" Myncerre's answering tone was almost flippant.

"So—mmm—
formal?
I've told you to call me 'Rhydev.'"

"Yes, your Eminence; but I must set a good example for the boy."

Rhydev Azhere's attention shifted to Owl. "Ah," he said. He took Owl's left arm and looked at the engraving on the bracelet. "A new—mmm—
acquisition?
So, boy: what role do you suppose you're to play for House Ghytteve?"

Owl appraised the man frankly before he responded. "Your Eminence, I suspect I'm intended as bait."

Myncerre rounded on him in outrage. "
Owl!
"

But Rhydev Azhere laughed. "Very likely. But for whom?"

"I dinna—I don't know yet, your Eminence."

The Azhere Council Lord brushed Owl's cheek with his fingertips. "When you find out, Owl, I'd like to know." Without waiting for a response, he sauntered off.

"How
could
you say such a thing, Owl?" Myncerre demanded.

"You said I was to answer politely."

"You should have politely said, 'I don't know what you mean, your Eminence.'"

"But I
did
know what he meant."

"The requirement is a
polite
answer, not a truthful one, you foolish boy." She shook her head, then smiled faintly. "But you made him laugh. Not many can say that. Hurry, now. We've wasted time enough."

***

Arkhyd came into the scullery after the noon rush and untied his apron. "I'm off to the market, Thantor. Finish the pots, and keep an ear to the taproom. There's a pair of customers, still. They've paid their reckoning, but if they want aught else, I told them to shout for you."

Donkey nodded slowly. As his uncle bustled off, he propped the door open. The pots were scrubbed, and the afternoon stretched ahead, stiflingly hot and boring.

To amuse himself, he began to eavesdrop. It was a common pastime for him; after he had overheard a few scraps of conversation, he would invent far-fetched situations to go with them. This pair was promising. The two men were whispering, but Donkey's ears were keen; and there was something furtive in their manner. He edged a bit closer to the doorway. He was instantly rewarded.

"...made the kill, just as planned; it couldn't have gone more smoothly—but the wallet wasn't on him. The Lady's angry—money for the assassins, not to mention the...evidence; she wants some answers, and she wants them now." It wasn't a Slum voice; this man had a cultured accent.

"If only I had answers." The second man spoke the Bharaghlafi language as though it didn't quite fit his tongue. "It is—mysterious. The Sea Hawk had the wallet, for I gave it to him myself; why he did not have it when the assassins struck, I have no idea."

"Well, you'd better come up with an idea, Dedemar; the Lady has begun to wonder whether you might not have been unduly tempted by the...evidence."

"I swear not," he said. "Tell her, Elkhar: I keep my word. I tell no lies."

The first speaker laughed, with bitterness. "She'll never believe
that
. In her world, there's no such thing as honesty—only expediency and credulity. Look, Dedemar: she's not happy and it's in your interests to
make
her happy. Can't you throw her a bone?"

Donkey shifted carefully, trying to get a look at the speakers. There was a pause, as though the man called Dedemar weighed his words. Donkey caught a glimpse of the foreigner: a tall, pale haired man in the livery of the Temple Watch; but the other man was ought of sight.

"Tell her," Dedemar said at last, "her puppy is meeting Rhydev at the Replete Feline tonight, after midnight. If she is aware, well enough; if not, could it be her hound turns feral?"

"The Replete Feline? A tavern on the Slum edge of the waterfront? I know the place. Good. If she wants you to spy, how can I get word to you?"

"I'm on duty. If she wants him watched, she must send someone other."

Elkhar made an approving grunt. "So you're showing some sense. There may be hope for you, after all."

"I learn fast. Do you want anything else, or should we go?"

Donkey heard the scrape of chairs as they rose. He padded back to the sink, in case either of them looked in before they left. He would have liked a look at the one called Elkhar, but it wasn't worth the risk. They hadn't sounded like they would tolerate being overheard; and words like 'assassins' and 'kill' were enough to give even Donkey pause.

He chewed on the conversation most of the afternoon. That they were talking about Squirrel's murdered customer seemed certain; but he did wish he could identify a few more of the references.

Chapter Seven—Dreams

Myncerre pursed her lips. "Come now, Owl; you must eat."

"I'm not hungry."

"Nonsense. A growing boy like you?"

He sighed. He knew that look: totally unyielding. She wouldn't ease up until he'd done as she said. He took a piece of bread and chewed a corner of it. He wasn't hungry—or not terribly. Besides, the food was highly spiced and tasted odd. He ate another bite of bread; it was so soft and pale that it seemed almost tasteless, but that was preferable to the strange spices.

"Eat some of the meat, boy," Myncerre insisted.

Dutifully, he choked down a few bites. The spicing bit at the back of his throat, made his tongue feel thick and slippery. He shoved the plate away. "I dinna—"

"
Don't
," the steward corrected.

Owl sighed. "I don't want any more."

Myncerre studied him, then smiled commiseratingly. "Tomorrow I'll ask the cook to make you something less highly spiced." She handed him a glass of wine. "Here; drink this."

"I'd rather have water," he told her. His head had begun to spin sickeningly.

"Drink it," she repeated.

He swallowed some of it. It was bitter; it choked him. As he coughed, he knocked the glass over. The red stuff pooled like blood on the creamy linen cloth. Owl stared at it as he caught his breath. Then, he noticed some small, dark granules, like dregs, left where the liquid had soaked into the cloth. He pinched a few off the table cloth and rolled them between his fingers; they were hard, sharp edged little crystals, and they were blue. His heart lurched as his vision blurred for an instant; he swayed in his chair, then caught himself. His frightened eyes fastened on Myncerre's face. "You've poisoned me," he said, reproachful; then he slumped forward, unconscious.

Myncerre sprang into action, sudden worry on her face. She lifted Owl and carried him to his bed; she loosened his clothing and wrapped him in blankets. It shouldn't have been enough to make him react like this! Fear tightened her lungs. How could she have miscalculated so badly? Lady Ycevi would
flay
her if the boy died. She rang the table cymbal to summon a servant.

"Fetch a pot of coffee," she ordered.

Before the servant returned, Owl began to moan. Myncerre felt a flicker of hope. It would be bad. The boy would likely spend the night thrashing and screaming; but in her experience, the ones who made noise didn't die of the drug.

***

Owl was trapped in his dreams. Images surged in his brain like storm wrack: Zhazher crumpled in their hovel, too still. Ferret, arguing heatedly with a tight-lipped Khyzhan. A man he didn't know, slight, dark-haired, with beaky features and fierce, speedwell eyes; he wore a ring with a great, green jewel on his long fingered hand. The Scholar King at the head of a long table, surrounded by the Council of Advice—and familiar faces: Rhydev Azhere, and beside him, Venykhar Ghobhezh-Ykhave. There was something important about this scene, something Owl had missed. He tried to cling to it, but the drug's undertow pulled him away. He fought for air; he was drowning! He thrashed and screamed, but the thundering surf pulled him down, down...

***

"How much did you give him?" Lady Ycevi's voice was deadly.

"Only a little, Lady. I used half an
anthitarre
—and he only had two bites of the stew, and not half a glass of the wine. It shouldn't affect him like this." Myncerre pinned Owl's shoulders with her hands as another spasm of thrashing took him.

Lady Ycevi looked from her steward to her slave, annoyance marring the arch of her eyebrows. "
Haceth
is a subtle substance. Keep him alive; if you can get him to drink some coffee, that would be beneficial—but don't drown him with it. Zherekhaf asked to speak with me this evening, and I'd rather not call his attention to the boy; so keep him as quiet as you can and don't come running to me with any news. I'll return once the Prime Minister leaves."

***

Arre sat up with a hiss of indrawn breath. Her hands gripped the edge of the table while her eyes grew wide and unfocused.

"Arre!" The startled edge in Khethyran's voice jarred words from the Seer.

"
Piantele Doma
," she whispered, forcing gasping breaths in and out of her lungs. As her eyes regained focus, she leaned her brow against one palm.

"Arre." Kheth grabbed her shoulders, shook her gently. "Arre, what is it?"

"
Haceth
."

"
Haceth?
" Kheth's voice spiraled toward panic. "
Someone gave you haceth?
"

"Not me. Owl. They gave Owl
haceth
." She managed a deep breath. "God, he's strong. I've got to help him."

"Owl?" He shook her a little harder. "Arre, for the love of the gods, make sense!"

She looked into Khethyran's strained face and forced herself to speak clearly. "They gave Owl
haceth
."

He took her chin in his hand. "By the gods above and below,
who is Owl?
"

"A boy; the boy in my visions. He—begged—in the Temple Gate; now he's a Ghytteve slave. He has Sight Gifts, untrained, very strong. And someone gave him
haceth
." She shook her head. "God, he's strong. He nearly pulled me in. Kheth, I have to help him."

"
Help
him?" the Scholar King whispered. "How?"

"I'll lead him out of his nightmares. Otherwise, he'll die—or go mad."

"Lead—? I've spent enough time at the Kellande School to know this sounds suicidal. You've no anchor; you're not in physical contact with the boy;
he's
untrained and strong."

"Two things you need to understand," she said gently. "One:  I've dreamed of him; he's important. I'm not sure, yet, how he fits, Kheth, but he's part of something and we need him. Second: he nearly pulled me under with him, just now. I'm trained; I was neither tranced nor sleeping, but I nearly joined him. If House Ghytteve is determined to addict him to
haceth
, if they keep dosing him with it, he could take me with him into madness. I can't be on guard all the time; and if I had been tranced, or sleeping—or even
overtired
, Kheth!—I might not have been able to hold on. I must lead him out, Kheth; at least, I must try."

Khethyran took her face in both hands, studying her as though he would engrave her features on his mind. "Be careful, Arre," he whispered at last. "I couldn't bear to lose you."

***

Down, down... The drug swept Owl into nightmares: the wailing ghost of Zhazher, '...your fault...all your fault...' Kitten, terror on her face, hands around her throat, choking, choking... The Lady Ycevi, smiling as she metamorphosed into a screaming hawk, talons ripping at his eyes... The slaver, Anthagh, chasing him and laughing...

Then, he heard music: the ripple of a lute. He flailed after it, and the music shattered into meaningless fragments. He caught one, held it in his mind; he used the chip of sound to build the image of the woman, Arre: a hedge against his nightmares. He pictured her, pictured the brilliant banks of candles; and there... There was the music again. He followed more gently, this time. Claws of nightmares raked him, but he nursed the thread of lute music in his mind. The drug flung his deepest terrors into the sea of his dreaming, but he fended them off, like flotsam, while he let the lute music act as a current, pulling him out of danger.

His breathing eased. His dreaming mind was no longer awash in a storm churned ocean. The imagery changed: a vast stone building. Tree-like columns supported a ceiling of shadows. Light at the far end of the hall drew him. Owl walked toward it, as the peace of the place seeped into his soul. As he neared the source of the light, he saw it was a candle, and in its pool of light sat the woman, Arre. Her lute whispered under her hands, but when he reached her, she gently stilled its voice. 

"Owl," she said.

"Arre."

"You have a very strong Gift," she told him.

"I din—don't understand."

"Your dreams, the visions you have; they are a special talent you have been given. In my country, we call them Sight Gifts. Sight Gifts are rare; ones as strong as yours are rarer still." Arre's face clouded. "My people would teach you and cherish you, not bind you as a slave to a cruel, ambitious old woman."

Owl was silent.

"We haven't much time," Arre said. "Listen: try not to let them feed you
haceth
again; it is the bitter stuff you tasted in the food and wine. Your Gift makes you too sensitive to it. If they force it on you, remember this place; do what you did to build the image of me to bring yourself here. This is a place of peace, and if you are able to shelter your dreaming mind here, you will be able to withstand the worst of the drug."

"Is everything I dream true?"

She shook her head. "Especially not with
haceth
. The drug unlocks your innermost fears, and then casts them at you as though they were truth. Owl, can you tell me what Ycevi Ghytteve intends for you? Do you know?"

"No. She said I was irresistible, and that 'the poor bastard doesn't stand a chance,' but I don't know what—or who—she meant. I told Rhydev Azhere I thought I was intended as bait; but I don't know for whom."

"Bait," Arre repeated, frowning.

"Arre, can we talk like this again?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "I don't think so. I hope you won't be given any more
haceth
, and without the impetus the drug provides, or proper training, I doubt you have the strength to touch my mind." Suddenly, the dream world shuddered around them. "No more time," she said. "Remember: no
haceth
."

Owl coughed and sputtered as someone poured warm coffee into his mouth. He turned his head away, struggled weakly with the encircling arms that held him in a sitting position—then blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. He was awake.

"Drink the coffee, Owl," Myncerre said. "It will help."

"Is there more
haceth
in it?" he asked. His throat hurt, and his voice was hoarse.

Myncerre started slightly. "No. There isn't. But tell me: how do you know
haceth
, Slum-rat?"

Owl thought fast. "My brother is addicted to Dream's Ease. Once, when I was little, one of his friends thought it would be funny to dope me up. He gave me
haceth
. I nearly died. Zhazher—that's my brother—said some people are very sensitive to
haceth
."

"I didn't give you very much," Myncerre said slowly.

"It wouldn't take much to kill me."

"Well, there's no
haceth
in that coffee; drink it."

Owl complied. The taste reminded him of the stuff Ferret occasionally brewed for him. He saw the thief in his mind's eye, laughing as she shared a joke with him. The memory brought sudden, painful tears.

"Owl?" Myncerre queried anxiously. "What is it?" There was more tenderness in her voice than she usually allowed to show.

"I want to go home. Please, Myncerre. I want to go home." At her pitying expression, Owl's control broke. He buried his face in the pillow and wept as though the world were ending.

***

Arre returned to awareness of her surroundings to find Khethyran holding both her hands. He was waxen.

"It's all right," she said quietly. "Sweet God, I'm weary."

"And this Owl?"

She shrugged. "He'll live."

"This time," the Scholar King added for her. "Arre, I could go to Ycevi and demand that she give the boy up to me. I'm not sure it would be politically wise—the Council Houses are jealous of their prerogatives, and I'm sure they'd cast my meddling in an unfavorable light; but if it will make you safer, Arre, I'll do it."

Arre's gaze went distant for an instant; her inner vision was hazed with the silvery shadows which meant she was seeing the future—or possible futures: swift images of trouble and Council strife. "No," she whispered. "He's important, our Owl; but he's important
where he is
. I think—I think he is meant to work against Ycevi." She worried a knuckle with her teeth. "Oh, I wish I could make it come clear!"

"Give it time," he suggested. "You're back safely; the boy is neither dead nor mad; let's concentrate on one miracle at a time."

"He said he was bait," she mused.

"Bait?" The Scholar King's attention sharpened. "Arre, have you seen him? Is he beautiful?"

"Well, yes, even though he was looking rather the worse for wear the night Venykhar tried to buy him."

"Venykhar did
what?
" Kheth nearly yelped. "I mean, he's so upright; he has quite a reputation for prudery among the other nobles—about slaves
and
boys. Why would he—?"

Arre was laughing. "Owl's a friend of that child, Mouse; the little artist. Ven
said
it would ruin his reputation, but he didn't seem very concerned."

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
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