A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1) (9 page)

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
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Chapter Nine—The Lady's Puppy

Owl sampled, with elaborate caution, the breakfast Myncerre served him—a fact she couldn't fail to notice. After the third time he broke one of the savory cakes into tiny pieces, Myncerre clicked her tongue.

"The Lady forbade me to dose you with more
haceth
. You might as well enjoy your meal."

Owl nodded. "And if she had given you orders to poison me gain, no doubt you'd say exactly the same thing."

Myncerre winced. "I daresay I deserved that."

Owl went back to dissecting breakfast cakes with great attention. After several silent minutes, Lady Ycevi herself swept into the room in a swirl of pale blue silks. Owl froze in outrage as she swooped over to him, and planted a scented kiss on his brow.

"How are you feeling, my poor, sweet boy? Why, you've hardly eaten any breakfast."

"Do you blame me?" Owl demanded.

Lady Ycevi's mouth hardened. "I paid ten Royals for you. I'm unlikely to poison you intentionally. If you hadn't proved sensitive, the
haceth
wouldn't have been harmful."

Owl did not reply, but the skeptical assessment in his clear eyes flustered even Lady Ycevi. She picked at the hem of one flowing sleeve. "Have you finished your meal?" she asked, then at his nod gestured for him to follow her. He obeyed, trailing the requisite three steps in her wake.

At the door of the library Lady Ycevi paused and said, with a little moue of irritation. "I've left something in my chambers. Go amuse my guest until I return."

"May I not fetch it for you, most gracious Lady?"

"Do as I say," she instructed. She opened the door, sent him through with a gentle push, then she shut it behind him; he heard the scrape of a key as the lock snicked home. A man stood by the tall windows, looking out across the sheltered gardens; as he turned toward the boy, Owl's breath caught. He had dreamed of this man: young, thin, with aquiline features, a green-gemmed ring on his hand. As they studied one another, the man's expression ran the series of changes Owl remembered from his dream. With a very faint smile he gestured for Owl to approach. The man put fingers under Owl's jaw and turned his face to the light, much as the Lady had done. He brushed the greening bruise.

"Did Ycevi do that? Or order it done?"

"No. My brother beat me."

"Brother?" Surprise widened the man's impossibly blue eyes; his gaze darted to the slave band on Owl's left wrist. 

"Before he sold me."

"What are you called, boy?"

"Owl."

"Owl? Why Owl?"

"Ferret named me. She said I had owl's eyes." Unbidden, the whole memory surfaced: a younger Ferret, brash, laying out the rules.
If you're to be one of us, you need a new name. Like me: I'm Ferret, not Frycce. You're Owl. You've an owl's eyes—and you've an owl's vision, too. Owls see in the dark; you see into the soul's darkness. It makes you good at begging—you recognize those prone to pity.
 

The memory stung. As his eyes swam with tears, he bit his lips together, determined not to cry. The man's face clouded with concern, and he smoothed a strand of Owl's tousled hair. "Oh, Owl," he murmured sadly.

It was the tenderness that undid him. As his tears spilled, the strange man drew Owl gently into a comforting hug. Owl fought down his tears and pushed the comfort away. Without comment, the man handed him a handkerchief.

Owl wiped his eyes and blew his nose. "I'm not usually such a baby," he said with disgust. "Sorry."

Cynicism glinted in answer. "
I'm
not usually such a soft touch. My name's Cithanekh. How long have you been here, Owl?"

"Four nights and three days."

"Before your brother sold you, what did you do?"

"I begged in the Temple Gate."

His eyebrows rose. "You clean up nicely, for a Slum-rat." A sneering edge sharpened Cithanekh's tone. "You must enjoy this newfound ease—enough to eat, new clothes, a comfortable bed."

"And such beautiful jewelry to wear," Owl retorted, displaying the slave band. "
I hate it!
Even when the food isn't drugged, it's too highly spiced; the bed's so soft, it smothers me; and the clothes itch. I'd far rather be at home, even with the filth and vermin. Happen life's hard in the Slums, but here, I'm naught but a piece of expensive Ghytteve property. And you think I
enjoy
it?
Gods!
" He spun away and stalked off. Halfway to the door, he stopped. "I canna even stomp out in a huff," he added, as wry amusement won out over anger. "She locked us in."

Suddenly, they were both laughing. "Oh, don't leave, Owl; and don't be hurt. I apologize. My cousin Ycevi is a gifted manipulator. I hate feeling used; I can't imagine why I thought you wouldn't mind." Cithanekh held out his hands. "Come sit with me, and tell me all about life in the Slums."

Owl took one step toward the man, then froze. He covered his mouth as he raised stricken eyes to Cithanekh's face.

"
Owl
. What is it?"

"Rhydev Azhere asked me what role I thought I'd play in House Ghytteve; and I told him I thought I was intended as bait. He laughed, and he said, 'Very likely; but for whom?' She must mean to use me against
you
."

He crossed to the boy, laid a gentle hand on his thin shoulders. "Heavens, Owl;
that
was obvious from the moment she sent you in here. But if you're not her willing tool...why, perhaps she's miscalculated."

Owl met Cithanekh's eyes, serious. "I'm not her willing tool—but I
am
her slave," he whispered. "And I'm frightened."

The young man's face softened. "So am I," he breathed. "Ycevi petrifies me—but it would never do to let it show. So come and sit down—and tell me about your friend, Ferret."

***

Lady Ycevi moved away from the spyhole, satisfaction molding her lips. It was progressing just as she had planned: the trap was set; the prey was nosing the bait. Now to wait, to proceed slowly; she must do nothing to alarm her prey. Late or soon, Cithanekh would take the bait, and then—
then
, he would be well and truly caged.

In a susurrus of silk, she moved into the hall where one of her bodyguard waited. "Elkhar."

"Most gracious Lady," he responded with a slight bow.

"Does Cithanekh know that he was observed with Rhydev Azhere last night?"

"I don't believe he saw me, most gracious Lady."

"I want him told—and I want him frightened. Filter the information through Dedemar. Also, see what you can uncover about Venykhar Ghobhezh-Ykhave. I want to know how he knows Owl, and why he's interested. Five Royals is a lot of money for House Ykhave—especially since they don't trade in slaves."

Elkhar bowed again. "As you command, most gracious Lady."

***

The Prime Minister Zherekhaf fingered his chain of office as he considered his nephew through narrowed dark eyes. The younger man bore the scrutiny calmly: Rhydev Azhere was no stranger to the game of intrigue.

"Let me be frank," the Prime Minister said at last.

Rhydev hid a smile; his uncle Zherekhaf was never frank.

"You recognize, I'm sure, that my first consideration is and must be the health and strength of the Empire."

"Indeed," Rhydev agreed, cynically amending the statement...
the strength of that bloodsucker's place in the Council
.

"Undue upheaval..." Zherekhaf frowned gravely. "There is little benefit in a change in leadership if the people suffer."

Meaning, of course
, Rhydev thought,
that when one starts a purge, it's easy to get purged in the process
.

"I have, of course, heard some of the rumors and the rumblings; there is growing discontent with the Scholar King among certain Houses. But I am not convinced that the time has come to take direct action."

"Indeed not," Rhydev agreed quickly. "And I am not—mmm—
suggesting
anything of that nature. I am a cautious and—mmm—
restrained
player in this game. However, neither caution nor restraint are virtues I would necessarily—mmm—
ascribe
to the dissident Houses. What I am suggesting is that we—mmm—
scrutinize
their actions with particular care. It might, then, be possible for us to—mmm—
anticipate
, or even forestall, their gambit. I, for one, fail to see the advantage of changing the hand at the helm unless we are—mmm—
certain
of our ability to dictate the course."

The older man's eyes glittered suddenly, as he shot an assessing look at the Azhere Council Lord, but his smile an instant later was patronizing. "That 'we' was a masterful touch, Rhydev—but I'm an old hand at this game. You and I both know that no one makes moves on the Council Houses'
khacce
table without enduring everyone's scrutiny and assessment. So: you want my cooperation in whatever you're planning. Very well; I'll hear your scheme. Tell me: what, exactly, do you hope to gain from this ploy?"

Rhydev hid his satisfaction; it was rare to lure so much directness from his uncle. Now for the gamble. "Personally," he said, allowing a hint of vindictiveness to lurk beneath the surface of his bland tone, "I should like to see Ycevi Ghytteve fall."

The older man's eyes widened. "Do you think it likely?"

Rhydev lifted an elegant shoulder. "Perhaps. Yes, if she decides to do more than—mmm—
complain
about Khethyran."

"You're talking about trapping her in treason."

"My dear Uncle Zherekhaf," he said in a voice poisonous with malice, "I'm talking about trapping her in any snare that will hold her."

"Well," the Prime Minister said; then he added, as though thinking aloud, "But who would succeed her? Her wretched son?"

"Duke Alghaffen has no interest in Council politics. If he did succeed to Ghytteve's seat, I doubt he would prove a force with which to be reckoned." He managed to sound disinterested; he
needed
Zherekhaf to take the false trail he'd laid. He had to convince his uncle he was acting on emotion, not intellect.

Conjecture roiled behind the Prime Minister's unrevealing eyes. "Whatever did Ycevi Ghytteve
do
to earn such enmity?"

Rhydev's nostrils flared as he feigned suppressed anger. "I'd rather not discuss it," he grated, setting the hook.

The Prime Minister eyed his nephew sternly. "If I am to cooperate with you in this, there are to be no secrets."

His jaw muscles bunched. "She stole a boy from me—" His even tone frayed, and he burst out, "Do you really need all the sordid details?"

Enlightenment dawned in Zherekhaf's face. "I've seen a boy, trailing after Myncerre."

"Owl," Rhydev said, as though he couldn't help himself.

"You'd bring Ycevi Ghytteve down over a slave?"

Rhydev turned one palm upward. "You've seen him. It's the only way I'll ever get him back, Uncle."

Zherekhaf nodded slowly. "How long will it take?"

"Perhaps a couple of months. Will you help me, Uncle?"

The Prime Minister considered, then nodded decisively. "But if we're to settle personal scores, I have one I'd like to set your agile mind to work on."

"You have only to ask," Rhydev responded gallantly.

Every bit of suave oiliness was stripped from the Prime Minister's voice as he gritted out, "Come up with a way to rid us of the Emperor's foreign witch."

Rhydev bowed. "As you wish, Uncle. As you wish." Then he excused himself. On his way to his quarters he was hard put to keep his raging inward battle between unease and jubilance from showing on his face. Zherekhaf had bought the story—at least, he
appeared
to have done.
Now pray all the gods I've guessed right
, Rhydev thought. Owl was bait; the boy had said so, and Myncerre had been aghast. If Rhydev could get the boy, he could bring Cithanekh to heel with him. But what if he were wrong? And what if the Prime Minister had outguessed him? Zherekhaf was a shrewd player; one didn't survive twenty years as a power in the Bharaghlafi Court without both luck and consummate skill. The game was always deeper than the surface ripples. Rhydev would be foolish not to expect Zherekhaf to play at least a double game. The Azhere Council Lord was many things, but no fool.

***

Zherekhaf watched his nephew's departure, questions shifting behind his inscrutable eyes. How satisfyingly ironic if Rhydev had really set aside his incessant calculations for some beautiful boy. Of course, he distrusted satisfaction; Rhydev was capable of guessing that such a turn of events would appeal to him.

The Prime Minister turned the situation like a gem in his mind, catching light in every facet. Regardless of Rhydev's motives, it would be a positive advantage if Ycevi fell—that woman was powerful and unscrupulous. And Rhydev's assessment of her son, Alghaffen, was on the mark. The Duke, as Ghytteve's Council representation, would lack both the skill and the ruthlessness of his mother; the influence of House Ghytteve would inevitably subside.

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
6.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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