Alan, Mynar, Jes and Lej are all huddled in Mynar’s library, searching grimoires, lore, and histories for any rumor of animal sacrifice in spells, so it falls to me to show Hunk the village, and make him and his group our offer.
“We can live in the houses?” Not the first time Hunk has asked me. He seems to have trouble believing what I am offering.
“Any, except the forge and the house closest to it.” I have decided Alan may need an office, or storeroom, or just somewhere to stay out of the rain since the forge is mostly open.
The rest of the men are inspecting the houses and the surrounding area, calling to each other when they find the central well and the mostly-intact paddock with an attached barn—also mostly intact.
“You will have to do repairs yourself, but you may use trees from the forest. You will have to schedule your employment with the merchants to be sure there are always guards here. You can plant the fields if you want, and keep the produce except for the lord’s portion due Mage Alan.”
“There is just one problem.” Hunk is looking ward the horizon, a wistful look on his face. He continues after a moment of silence. “The troop, well, we…” He stops again to take a deep breath, “We could do fairly well as guards for merchants; most of us have done that now and then, but, I don’t think we would be much good as spies.”
“All you will be expected to do is gather information, remember it, and report once you return. No one expects you to get into places a merchant’s guard wouldn’t normally be. Just keep your eyes open, visit multiple taverns and listen to the gossip without appearing to be interested in it. And when you come home, report what you have seen only to me.”
Hunk brightens up. “We can do that.”
One item on my list settled. I deliberately don’t think of how many are left. Four more days until Murr’s meeting with Mynar, five or six more days before we can expect a messenger from Celeste. Maybe I should ask Alan if he has a patience spell.
“Lot of use of toads and snakes, but only in poisons. Some blood from the Sorcerer. And, of course, blood and hair are used in tracking and cursing, but that has to be from the target.”
“What about the human sacrifices?” Jes asks what I been reluctant to bring up.
“Death and pain were what he wanted, not body parts. He only kept the skulls for decoration.” Alan’s tone was bleak; he was remembering things he would rather have forgotten. “He wrote that in his journal—decoration—as if they had never been men. I suppose we should ask the priests, they have spent much of their life cleaning up after bad things have happed.”
I think, but do not say aloud, that demons and dead Sorcerers were a bit more than just ‘bad things’, although demons and a living Sorcerer had been worse.
We look over the parapet at the bright colored leaves of fall in the distance, beyond the city. (With my tower inaccessible, Alan, Jes and I are spending a lot of time walking the castle walls.) Alan and Jes both watch me when they think I’m not looking; since they haven’t been/can’t be told about Celeste and thus her messages, they don’t understand why I am so jumpy. I don’t try to explain.
I look intently at a courier riding in, hoping to see Havel’s colors, even though I know it is too soon for a courier from Celeste. But the rider’s colors are the dark brown of a common courier, one of the huge troop of couriers carrying news from city to city. Their reports will be read, consolidated, and summaries presented to father. Summaries which are not anywhere near as interesting as the reports that make their way to mother.
I’m vaguely wishing, yet again, that I had tried to hunt the black cat; it’s carcass might have told us something, and it is a man-killer. It doesn’t matter that the man was one that probably needed to be hung.
“Hum… I wonder.” Jes and Alan stop their discussion about why the cat had to die for the spell to work. (I had been listening with half my attention, once I concluded that neither of them had a clue.) “If a black cat had been killing people, it would be mentioned to father, but if it had just been sighted? Maybe not.”
I head toward the chamber where the courier’s reports are stored, leaving Jes and Alan to their discussion. It’s another dead end. Sort of. At least I know the cat probably hasn’t killed anyone else, that would have been mentioned in the report, even if not brought to father’s attention. Really got to remember to ask Alan about a ‘patience’ spell.
I wander around the castle trying to decide what I’m in the mood to do. Arguing with father again crosses my mind, but deep down, I agree I shouldn’t be at the meeting with Murr, so my heart really wouldn’t be in it, despite how badly I want to be there. I can’t explain why, even to myself. I’m in no mood for philosophical discussions and I don’t want to worry mother or get sucked into wedding preparations, so that pretty much eliminates the rest of my family. Instead I prowl the castle and work very hard not to glare at people.
I stop at the tear-filled voice and turn to find Dena sniffling behind me.
“The Queen won’t see me, I need to explain. The fight wasn’t my fault.”
“Actually, it probably was.” I’m not moved by her tears, don’t believe them to be real.
“But Lady Ckel told me I’m forbidden to the next six balls, and the Queen won’t let me explain. I’ll miss everything.” She sniffles again, and I consider the possibility the tears are real this time; she would dearly regret missing all of the wedding gaiety that I will only attend because I have no choice.
“You don’t really expect me, or anyone, to take your side against the Queen, do you?” I wasn’t being mean, I really wanted to know if she was that stupid.
She didn’t answer, just gave me a really nasty look and ran off.
Rejv, the guard-sergeant on duty looks after her as if he is debating following. “She was rude to you, Princess.”
It wasn’t the first time, but usually she was careful who heard her careful barbs. I don’t answer, she isn’t important enough to worry about, I had just figured out who might be able to solve my problem about the meeting with Murr. I go to find Daver.
Should have talked to him first.