Lord Hanner was panting slightly as he hurried across the plaza toward the red stone bridge that lad into the Palace. He'd had a long, busy day and been moving at a constant fast walk for over a mile, his bones carrying more weight than they should, so it was no surprise that his breathing was a bit heavy as he trotted across the brick pavement.
Perhaps that was why the stench of decay rising from the Grand Canal, which he had scarcely noticed when he set out that morning, hit him so strongly. That the tide was now out, so that the water level in the sea-fed canal was a foot or two lower than it had been when left, might also have contributed.
Whatever the cause, the steps slowed, and he swallowed hard. The reek of dead fish and rotting vegetation was overpowering—and hardly appropriate for the immediate environs of the seat of the city's government and the official residence of the overlord of Ethshar of the Spices. The golden marble of the palace walls glowed beautifully in the light of the setting sun; the dark red brick of the plaza complemented it nicely; the sky above was a lovely blue streaked with pink and white wisps of cloud—and the whole scene stank like an ill-kept fishmarket. The city's usual smells of smoke, spices, and people were completely smothered.
The guards on the bridge and the well-dressed strollers in the square did not appear troubled by the smell, but there were not quite as many strollers as Hanner would have expected at this hour on a beautiful summer day.
This lovely afternoon was the fourth day of Summerheat; so far this year the month had not lived up to its name, and the weather was mild. Hanner was sweating,his tunic sticking to his back, but from exertion, not the day's heat.
Hanner waved a hand in front of his nose, trying unsuccessfully to dispel the odor, as he kept walking, more slowly now, toward the bridge. “Confound it,” he muttered to himself. “Someone's not doing his job here.”
He tried to remember who was in charge of seeing that the canal was cleaned regularly; wouldn't that be the responsibility of Clurim, Lord of the Household—and, not incidentally, one of the overlord's younger brothers? Or was there some other, lesser official whose job description specifically included handling such things as seeing that the canal was cleaned?
Hanner couldn't remember. He was a resident of the Palace and a hereditary noble, so he was acquainted with most of the city's officials and functionaries, but right now he could not think who was responsible for the regular purification of the Grand Canal.
Uncle Faran would know, of course; the simplest thing for Hanner to do would be to mention it to him. In fact, the chances were good that Lord Faran had already noticed the stench, and that the magicians who would perform the purification spells were already on their way. After all, Faran's windows, like all the windows in the Palace, overlooked the canal.
That did assume, of course, that Lord Faran hadn't allowed himself to be so distracted by other matters that he was ignoring his surroundings and leaving such minor mundane details unattended. Hanner certainly hoped his uncle wasn't shirking his duties while he once again pursued his obsession—or rather while he waited for Hanner to pursue it.
Ethshar could ill afford to have Lord Faran, chief advisor to Lord Azrad the Sedentary, neglecting his duties, since the overlord had long since turned most of the city's day-to-day administration over to his chief advisor.
Hanner picked up his pace again, trotting across the bridge without a glance at the stonework, barely nodding at the guards on either side.
“Who comes…” one began, lifting his ceremonial spear; then he recognized Lord Hanner and let the spear fall back into place.
In the palace entryway Hanner had to stop and wait impatiently while the additional guards there went through their rigmarole of signs and countersigns before opening the door. The captain watched his men, but remarked, “A pleasure to see you, Lord Hanner.”
Hanner did not deign to reply, though he did wave an acknowledgment. He had spent the entire day roaming the city and talking to strangers, at his uncle's orders, and he really did not want to talk to anyone else just now—not that the captain, a man named Vengar, was another stranger; he was the commander of the guard detachment inside the Palace, and Hanner had known him slightly when Vengar was still a lieutenant, since before Hanner himself was old enough for breeches.
At last the soldiers inside acknowledged that the person requesting admission wasn't an invader and swung open the heavy, iron-bound doors. “Thank you,” Hanner said as he hurried past them into the central hallway.
That passage was twenty feet wide and twenty-five feet high, floored with tessellated marble and hung with rich tapestries, and it led directly to the ornately worked golden doors of the overlord's main audience chamber. Hanner barely even glanced at that display of grandeur; instead he immediately turned right and stepped through a small wooden door into one of Lord Clurim's offices. There he merely waved to the clerk at the desk before proceeding on through, emerging into a narrow corridor and heading for his own family's quarters.
Had Lord Clurim been present Hanner would have mentioned the smell, but he knew from unhappy experience that telling the clerk would result not in a prompt cleaning, but in assorted messages wandering about the building, accomplishing nothing but the annoyance of other clerks.
Hanner wound his way through a maze of passages and antechambers and two flights of stairs before arriving, finally, at Lord Faran's apartments—the apartments Hanner and his two sisters had shared with their uncle since their mother's death two years before. He paused at the door to catch his breath, then straightened his silk-trimmed tunic, opened the door, and stepped into Lord Faran's sitting room.
His uncle was standing there, resplendent in a fine cloak of dark green velvet that hardly seemed appropriate to the season, while Hanner's Lady Alris, wearing a faded blue tunic and dark-patterned skirt, sat in the window seat, ignoring the beautiful weather beyond the glass as she glowered at Hanner and Faran. Their other sister, Lady Nerra, was not in sight.
Lord Faran's cloak was clearly for appearance, not warmth. Faran was, as always, elegant and graceful; and as always, Hanner was reminded of his own shorter stature and heavier build. He was not, he frequently told himself, actually fat, but he was definitely well rounded—quite unlike his trim, handsome uncle. Hanner had taken after his long-vanished father's side of the family.
Lord Faran spoke before Hanner could. “Ah, Hanner,” he said. “I have a dinner engagements, so I can't spare more than a moment just now, but I must know if you learned anything important.”
“I noticed that the canal stinks,” Hanner blurted.
Faran smiled wryly. “I'll see to it before I leave,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Not really,” Hanner admitted. “I interviewed almost a dozen magicians, and none of them reported any threats or abuse from the Wizards' Guild.”
“You asked Mother Perréa?”
“I spoke to her and her partner,” Hanner said. “She insisted that it was her own decision to limit herself to witchcraft and not accept her father's post as magistrate. The Guild's rules had nothing to do with it.”
“Either that or she was sufficiently terrified that even now she won't speak of it,” Faran said, frowning.
“She didn't appear at all nervous,” Hanner said.
“You'll have to tell me more later,” Faran said. “If I'm to chastise Lord Clurim for the state of the canal and still reach my destination in time, I can't spare another second here.”
“What's her name?” Hanner asked, smiling as he stepped aside.
“Isia, I think,” Faran replied, his frown vanishing. Then he swirled past Hanner and was gone.
Hanner listened to the footsteps retreating down the hallway for a moment before closing the door. Then he turned to Alris.
“He's off again,” Alris said before Hanner could speak. “As usual. He spends more nights away than he does here.”
Hanner knew that was, at most, only a slight exaggeration. “It's not our business if he does,” he said.
“You can say that because he's never dragged you along,” Alris said. “He insists I have to meet people.”
“He sends me out to meet them on my own, instead,” Hanner said. “I don't see that as much better.”
“You don't have to stand there looking innocent while the great man seduces some poor woman who's dazzled by his title.” She picked at a loose thread on her skirt and said, “I don't want to meet people.”
“Have you ever told Uncle Faran that?”
“Of course I have! But he doesn't pay any attention.” She looked up from the thread. “You'll get to meet his latest conquest.”
“He told me this one wants to see the inside of the Palace, so he'll probably be bringing her up here.”
“And he'll probably want us to stay out of the way,” Hanner said. “She won't be coming to meet us”
“Which is a good thing. She's probably stupid. Most of them are.”
Hanner did not want to argue about their uncle's taste in women, so he attempted to change the subject. “Where's Nerra?” he asked.
Alris gestured toward the passage to their bedchambers. “In there somewhere,” she said. “She and Mavi were talking about clothes again, and I got bored.”
“Mavi's here?” Hanner tried not to sound too pleased. While he generally didn't think much of his sisters' friends, Mavi of Newmarket was an exception. Nerra had met her while shopping for fabrics in the Old Merchants' Quarter, and the two had quickly become close; Hanner admired Mavi's generosity of spirit and lively interest in almost everything. And her fine features, charming smile, shapely figure, and long lustrous hair didn't lower Hanner's opinion a bit.
Alris nodded. “She's boring,” she said. “Like Nerra.”
Hanner grimaced. Alris was thirteen and thought everything was boring.
Or almost everything; like Uncle Faran, she was fascinated with magic. She had tried for months to convince Faran to apprentice her to a magician, but he had refused, on the grounds that she might well inherit or marry into an important position on the government of the Hegemony of the Three Ethshars—but that she could not take such a position if she were a magician.
Hanner suspected that Uncle Faran might well intend to marry Alris off to some important politician, ad much for his own advancement as hers; as Alris said, she and Nerra were often taken along on Faran's travels, while Hanner never was.
Any such intention got no support from Alris herself. She had argued that she didn't want a government position or a prestigious marriage, but as usual their uncle had prevailed, and now that she was six weeks past her thirteenth birthday she was too old to be properly apprenticed to anyone, magician or otherwise.
So now she spent her time moping around the Palace, being bored and disagreeable.
“You were talking to magicians all day, weren't you?” Alris demanded.
“Most of it, yes,” Hanner agreed. “Three witches, a theurgist, two sorcerers, and four different wizards.”
“Did any of them show you any magic?”
“Not really,” Hanner lied. One sorcerer and two of the wizards had shown him a number of spells and talismans, and one of the witches had read his mind and offered to heal some of the discomfort in his soul.
Hanner did not have any discomfort he wanted cured, so he had refused the offer. He suspected that whatever he might have cluttering up his soul was the result of his dissatisfaction with his own actions, and he wanted that left intact, to give him incentive to do better in the future.
“I'll bet they did,” Alris said enviously. “You just aren't admitting it.”
Before Hanner could reply he heard footsteps; he turned to see Nerra and Mavi emerging from Nerra's bedchamber.
Nerra was five years younger than Hanner's twenty-three years, five years older than Alris, and like her siblings a little shorter than average. While not as stocky as Hanner, she was definitely heavier than Alris.
Mavi, on the other hand, was an inch or so taller than Hanner, and shaped very nicely indeed, in Hanner's opinion—though of course he would never dare tell her so.
“I thought I heard your voice,” Nerra said. “Has Uncle Faran gone?”
“He just left,” Hanner replied.
“Does he still think the Wizard' Guild is plotting to take over the World?”
Hanner sighed. “Something like that,” he admitted.
“Are they plotting to take over the World?” Mavi asked with a sly smile. “Have you found any evidence of their dire schmes?”
“They're enforcing their rules, just as they always have,” Hanner said wearily. “No mixing different sorts of magic. No mixing magic and government.”
“It's stupid,” Alris said from the window. “Why should they care?”
“They don't want anyone getting too powerful,” Hanner explained, as he had several; times before—but never in Mavi's hearing, which was why he continued. “After all, some wizards live for centuries—if the overlord were to live that long, who knows what he might do?”
Mavi and Nerra looked at each other, then burst out laughing. Hanner blushed. “Not our overlord,” he said. “I don't think Lord Azrad the Sedentary would ever get much done no matter how long he lived. But imagine if the first Lord Azrad were still alive, and had had two hundred years…”
“What if he had?” Alris demanded. “What business is it of the Guild's? I wouldn't mind if old Azrad the Great were still running things!”
“Uncle Faran would mind,” Nerra said. “He
“Who cares?” Alris said. “The overlord is sixty-seven. Someday he's going to choke to death on a fishbone or something, and then Azrad the Younger will b Azrad VII, and he'll probably throw Uncle Faran out anyway. They don't like each other very much.”
“And suppose that the overlord had some sort of magic that would let him live for hundreds of years—what would Azrad the Younger do?” Hanner asked. “Just wait?”
“He might just find another job,” Mavi suggested.
“Or he might hire a wizard or a demonologist to assassinate his father.”
“Lord Azrad wouldn't do that,” Nerra protested.
“He can't” Alris said. “The Wizards' Guild would kill any magician who agreed to assassinate a government official.”
“But we're assuming the Guild isn't enforcing their rules anymore,” Hanner said.
“It's stupid,” Alris said. “It's a stupid assumption, because they are enforcing their stupid rules, and Uncle Faran can't make them change that.”
“And this is a stupid argument,” Nerra side. “I'm hungry —is the overlord dining in state tonight?”
“I don't think so,” Hanner said.
“Then let's go down to the kitchens and get ourselves some supper. I don't want to eat here, and besides, Uncle Faran would probably rather we aren't here when he brings his current woman in.”
“True enough,” Hanner agreed. He looked longingly at the couch by the wall—his feet hurt, and he would have liked to rest them briefly—but turned and led the way to the door. He was as hungry as Nerra, and he could rest his feet when they got to the kitchens—three flights down and a hundred yards to the west, beneath the great hall.
The vast and cavernous kitchens were swarming with servants and courtiers, preparing, transporting, and consuming a variety of fine foods. One table was roped off, with a guard standing nearby—that was where the mater chef was making the overlord's dinner.
The overlord was traditionally expected to dine in the great audience hall, with his family and courtiers gathered about him, but Azrad VI had never wanted to put that much effort into his meals; he preferred to eat in his apartments with a few close advisors—usually his brothers and Lord Faran, if Faran was around. That left the other occupants of the Palace free to make their own arrangements.
Lord Faran often dined elsewhere, in the mansions of various important figures or the homes of various women, but Hanner's sisters were only rarely invited, and Hanner himself even less often. Helping themselves from the stocks of food in the kitchens had become commonplace.
The party of four collected a roasted hen, a bottle of Aldagmor wine, and a plateful of vegetables and sweet rolls, then found themselves a quite corner and settled cross-legged on the floor. There they ate, chatted, and watched the bustle around them. Hanner noticed buckets of offal being dumped out a window into the canal and remarked, “There's one reason the water stinks.”
“It certainly does stink, doesn't it?” Mavi said. “I think the last cleaning spell didn't work properly.”
“You can't trust magic,” Nerra said. “It's unreliable. At least, Uncle Faran says it is.”
Alris snorted derisively.
“Maybe that's another reason the Wizards' Guild wants to keep magic and government separate,” Mavi said.
Hanner shook his head. “I don't think that's it,” he said. “Wizardry isn't any less reliable than anything else, really.”
“That's wizardry,” Nerra said. “What about the other magicks? Uncle Faran is obsessed with all of them, even if it's the wizards who particularly annoy him.”
“The Guild doesn't want any magicks combined,” Alris said.
“But is wizardly less reliable?” Mavi asked. “I hadn't heard that.”
Hanner turned up a palm. “I think it depends what you want to do,” he said. “The theurgists certainly don't claim to be infallible, and plenty of prayers go unanswered, but they always seem to be able to get certain things done. I never saw anyone die of a fever in a theurgist's care.”
A sudden brief silence fell, and Hanner realized what he had just said. Nerra and Alris stared at him in silent shock, but Mavi asked, “How many people have you seen die of fevers anywhere?”
“Our mother,” Nerra said angrily, shoving her plate aside. “He saw our mother waste away with a fever. And the magicians wouldn't help because she was Lady Illira, Lord Faran's sister. They would have used their spells for a shopkeeper or a sailor or even some stinking beggar from the Hundred-Foot Field, but anyone with a hereditary title or ties to the overlord, no—the wizards wouldn't allow it.” She glanced at Alris, who looked down at her own supper and picked at a chicken bone.
“That's another reason Uncle Faran's obsessed with magic,” Hanner said quietly.
“I'm done eating,” Nerra said, getting to her feet. “I'm going.”
“I'll come with you,” Alris said, putting her own plate on the floor.
“But I'm not finished!” Mavi protested.
Nerra didn't answer; she stomped off, with Alris close behind, leaving Hanner and Mavi seated on the flagstones.
“I'm sorry,” Hanner said. “I wasn't thinking. I should have known better than to remind them about Mother.”
“Well, it didn't bother me,” Mavi said. “My mother's alive and well. But it was a bit…;”
“Something like that…”
“I think that describes it, yes” Mavi said, smiling.
“I'm good at that,” Hanner said. “I never know what to say, or when to keep my mouth shut. That's one reason I'm still my uncle's errand boy, instead of holding a post in my own right.”
“You could do worse than be an assistant to the overlord's chief advisor.”
Hanner grimaced. “And as that advisor's nearest surviving kin,I ought to be able to do better. Uncle Faran always knows what to say.”
“Your uncle's had twenty years of experience in government.”
Hanner had no good reply to that. He picked up his remaining piece of chicken.
The two of them finished their meal in companionable silence. When both had eaten their fill and wiped or licked away the last of the grease, Hanner frowned.
“I don't know whether Nerra would want to see you again yet,” he said.
“I should be getting home in any case,” Mavi said.
“I don't think Nerra will want to see me, either, and I'd\ enjoy a walk,” Hanner found himself saying, even though his feet were still slightly sore from the day's excursions.
“May I escort you home?”
“I'd be honored,” Mavi said.
Copyright © 2000 by Lawrence Watt-Evans