ONCE, WHEN HE was a young child, six years old, Gerek Hessler had asked his great-grandmother about her life dreams, those vivid imaginings of past lives that came like nightmares upon a person in their sleep. Though she no longer saw anything but shadows, she swung her head around and stared at him, her milky eyes like pale moons in her dark face. Nothing, she whispered. I dreamed of nothing, little man.
But when he asked again, she sucked in her lower lip. For a moment, her eyes brightened, her gaze turned inward, as if recalling those dreams. Then her mouth twitched in an unhappy smile, and she touched his cheek far more gently than she used to. Live blind and you die blind, she said in swift soft tones. One day, Blind Toc himself makes sure you see the truth about yourself.
She had not answered his question, not directly, but he had not dared to say more. Three weeks later, between midnight and dawn, she died in her sleep. One life ended, her soul winging through the void to its next. Later, after he had studied the old philosophers, Gerek always wondered about his great-grandmother’s words. Had she lived blindly, life upon life, absorbed in the daily dull minutiae? Or had she at last faced the truth with eyes open, unflinchingly?
Gerek passed a hand over his face. Strange, unsettling memories. They had come upon him unexpectedly as he passed through Tiralien’s northern gates. Was it the sight of that aged fresco of Lir and her brother Toc over the gate itself? Or did the memories revive because of Tiralien itself, because of his cousin Dedrick, whose death had brought him so many miles?
Dedrick. Years ago, as children, he and Dedrick had spent a month here, along with their families. A second visit came about when Gerek’s parents decided he might study with an old scholar in the Little University. Now, riding in a freight wagon along a boulevard crowded with morning traffic, Gerek stared around, trying to see if the present city matched anything from his vague recollections. He remembered that bell tower, built of dark red brick and topped with an elaborate openwork crown for the bell itself, which flashed in the thin sunlight. That bridge led over the Gallenz River to the southern highway. And there, on the rising hills above, was the regional governor’s palace—Lord Vieth was the man’s name. He could not see the coast from here, but he could smell its heavy salt tang. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the hushing sound of water against the shore. A foreign sound to someone from the inland hill country.
From the nearby tower came the creak of ropes, the dull thump of the clapper. A pause, like the silence between each breath, then bell and bell and bell rang out over the morning.
The driver shouted to his team of horses. Abruptly the wagon jerked to the left. Gerek, used to this maneuver, braced himself against the nearest crate. His bones ached from sitting too long, his teeth rattled in time with the wheels as they jounced and bounced over the stone-paved streets. Soon they left behind the chaos of mules and carts, fishermen selling their catch, farmers arriving from the surrounding countryside to trade for supplies; it dropped away like an old cloak as they entered a quieter neighborhood where the merchants and richer tradesmen lived.
After the merchant houses came a district of fine shops, then a bleak expanse of counting houses and storage buildings. Just as he wondered how much longer until they arrived, the driver flicked his whip and barked out a command. Once more the wagon lurched, and they turned onto a broad avenue. Oh yes. Here were houses such as Gerek had imagined. Here was a neighborhood where a duke’s son might live. Even without his cousin’s description, Gerek recognized his destination.
The driver reined his horses to a stop. Gerek climbed awkwardly from the wagon. His legs, cramped from the long ride, buckled. He grabbed the wagon to keep from falling. His shin banged against the wheel. He yelped, in spite of himself.
The driver coughed. It sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “Would you like me to unload your trunks here, sir?” he asked.
“N-n-no.” Gerek swallowed and started over. “No. Thank you. Please leave them at the warehouse. I will send for them later.”
“As you wish, sir.” The man spoke politely enough. He clearly regretted that ill-timed laugh. Perhaps he knew of Gerek’s connection to House Maszuryn, itself elevated by the queen’s friendship with Gerek’s cousin Alia. More likely, he simply hoped for a few extra denier from his passenger.
Gerek paid the driver the final installment for his passage, then added five more silver coins. “For the safe delivery of my belongings. And for your kindness during the journey.” The words came out steadily, if not elegantly. It was more than he often hoped for.
The wagon lumbered off, its wheels rattling over the paving stones. Gerek stood alone on the broad and quiet avenue. He sniffed, smelled the scent of freshly turned dirt in the cool, clean morning air. This was one of the richest quarters in the city. A handful of stone mansions were visible through the trees, which were still winter-bare on this early spring day. The one that interested him—Lord Raul Kosenmark’s—stood directly opposite, behind a tall iron gate. In the center of the gate, an artisan-smith had twisted the iron bars into the likeness of a sinuous leopard. The insignia of House Valentain.
Memories, thirteen years old, came to life.
Gerek remembered his cousin Dedrick riding from his father’s estates, breathless with the news. A letter had arrived from Tiralien, delivered by a special courier. Their great-grandfather was to receive an award for his service to the Crown, and from the regional governor’s own hand.
“We shall all attend,” his great-grandfather had declared.
Standing here in Tiralien once more, Gerek recalled distinctly the shimmering summer heat in the governor’s palace. The pervasive stink of ocean tang, overlaid by sweat and too many bodies crushed close together, which even the sweetest herbs could not overcome. He could see clearly with his mind’s eye their great-grandfather kneeling before Lord Vieth to receive an astonishingly ugly chain, worked of silver and gold and studded with jewels of all sorts. His cousins whispering jokes to each other. Dedrick’s handsome face bending close to his, then retreating just as quickly, but not before he’d made some deliciously sarcastic comment. (Directed at the king? That vulgar chain? At Gerek himself, fat and stuttering and so misplaced among his cousins of all degrees?)
No, Dedrick had never mocked him, not like the others. Dedrick had saved his bitterest comments for his own father and the family’s ambitions. Especially his sister’s.
More recent memories overwhelmed the rest. The terrible news from Duenne—a riding accident, according to the official letter, but everyone knew better. Knew that Dedrick had died by order of the king and the King’s Mage. Then, months later, Gerek’s decision to come here, to the house of the man responsible for leading Dedrick to his death.
Voices chattered inside his brain. Relatives dismissing him, consigning him to a useless life, a romantic with few qualities beyond an attention to history, philosophy, and clever handwriting.
Ignoring the voices, he crossed the avenue. That grand central gate was not for him, but for visitors of quality. And, of course, those clients who frequented the other side of Lord Kosenmark’s business—the pleasure house and its many courtesans. But Dedrick had faithfully described the house to Gerek many times, so Gerek knew to look to one side, to a lane leading between the house and a wall demarcating the property from that of the next elegant mansion.
Guards observed his entrance. He knew that, even if he could not see them. They would, however, view him as no threat; simply a large clumsy man ambling toward a service entrance. Gerek tried not to mind.
The lane brought him past a long blank section of wall, then a bare courtyard with a few equally bare trees and a lonely stone bench. Here windows broke up the expanse of golden stonework, but they were all dark, like eyes without the illumination of the soul. Gerek continued on to the side door his cousin had mentioned. The door itself was ordinary, but the story his cousin had told was not—about a young woman beaten and raped and close to death. She had knocked on the door and Raul Kosenmark had taken her in.
Gerek knocked at the door. His large hand thumped against the painted wooden panels, sending echoes down the lane. He stepped back and waited.
It was quiet here—even quieter than the main avenue. From far away, he heard a horse whickering. Flies buzzed past, fat and hopeful. A breeze tickled his bare neck, lifting away the sweat from his fur-lined collar, reminding him of how he must appear. After six days riding in a wagon, spending the nights in the cheapest hostelries, or camped beside the road, he looked more like a tramp than a scholar. Hurriedly he shook the dust from his clothes and swiped a hand through his stiff, tousled hair. His boots were filthy. He bent to rub them with his sleeve.
The lock rattled. He straightened up.
A young woman stood in the doorway. She wore a plain black skirt and a blue smock with the sleeves rolled up. The pale sunlight cast a shadow across her dusky brown face. Gerek blinked, unexpectedly surprised by her ordinary appearance.
“Yes?” she said at last.
He immediately dug out the letter from inside his coat and offered it to her.
She took it, glanced from the paper back to Gerek’s face. He thought she was smiling, but he couldn’t be sure.
“For the duke’s son,” he said. “My n-n-name is-is Gerek Hessler.”
“Ah. They told me that you would arrive today. You are here to apply for the position of Lord Kosenmark’s secretary.”
He released a breath in relief. “Yes. That.”
If the young woman noticed his stuttering, she gave no hint of it. She stood to one side and politely motioned for him to enter.
* * *
HER NAME WAS Kathe, she told him. Normally she did not attend to admitting visitors—she worked in the kitchens—but so many of the maids were taken sick with colds, and Lord Kosenmark had not wanted to increase the size of his household, even temporarily. Not to worry, she said, they would soon have him settled. He would want to see Mistress Denk, the steward, and after that Lord Kosenmark, but surely he would appreciate a few moments in a private room to recover from his long journey.
Listening to the flow of her chatter, Gerek took away only one detail. She had noticed the dust and dirt and sweat. He rubbed in vain at his face and wished he had taken his brother’s advice to stop first at an inn to bathe and dress in fresh clothing. But inns required money, and he had none to spare. Not if today did not produce the position he hoped for.
“I’m sorry,” Kathe said. “I chatter too much, Lord Kosenmark tells me.”
She’d stopped in the middle of a wide corridor. Rooms opened to either side—bright rooms filled with silk-covered couches and chairs, their tiled floors gleaming in the sunlight. The scent of beeswax and fresh herbs hung in the air. There was also the unmistakable scent of expensive perfume, but no other sign of the courtesans Dedrick talked about, nor of Kosenmark himself. Merely the elegant and richly furnished spaces one might expect to find in the household of a wealthy man, the elder son of an influential duke.
“I-I— My apologies,” Gerek said. “What did you s—say?”
She smiled. (A kindly smile, he noticed.) “I can see that you’re tired from your long journey. Would you like a private room where you might bathe your face? You look as though you aren’t used to our southern seasons.”
“N-no,” he said, then felt his cheeks heat. “Yes. Very tired. Could I-I—”
“Right this way,” she said.
Kathe left him in a small sunny room, comfortably furnished with a padded chair and several wooden benches. A high table stood by the single window, which overlooked a lawn and trees beyond. An antique tapestry of Lir and Toc hung from one wall—this one depicting their season of love—and a silk carpet covered the red-tiled floor. There was no fireplace in the room, but the air was pleasantly mild. A brass mirror hung from the opposite wall. Gerek ducked his head to avoid seeing his reflection.
Before he had time to wonder what came next, several maids, some of them red-eyed and sniffling, appeared with towels and robes. He would find the baths in the first basement, they told him, down the stairs located at the end of the hallway.
Gerek muttered something about not keeping the steward waiting, but the girls had already disappeared. Through the half-closed door, he heard them giggling.
Damn them. I’m not a dumb beast. I’m—
Nothing but the second son of a minor branch of an unimportant family. (Never mind the queen’s recognition of Dedrick’s sister, Lady Alia.) Not even that, because to these people, he was an unemployed scholar seeking employment. They were right to laugh at him. Everyone else did.
Everyone except his brother and Dedrick.
Gerek closed and locked the door. Still furious with himself and the maids, he undressed doggedly and put on the robe. The fabric was thick worsted cotton, soft against his skin and warmed by a fire. The warmth and softness irritated him further. He stomped from the room to the stairs, down to the baths. Those, too, drove him to an unreasonable fury. He scrubbed himself clean—hair, nails, and body—from all the grime accumulated in six days of travel. He’d scraped his hands raw from catching the wagon, and bruised his shin against the iron-plated wheels. Good. That felt more believable than this impossibly huge pool, the scented soaps, the surrounding luxury, which, no doubt, he would have to leave behind when Lord Kosenmark refused his service.
Scrubbed and annoyed, he returned to the room to discover the maids had removed all his clothes, even down to his loincloth.
He was about to curse out loud when he remembered Dedrick’s warning: He listens. To friends, to enemies. There is no one he absolutely trusts. Oh, perhaps Maester Hax, or his new love, but no one else.
Hax was dead, however. And Ilse Zhalina had left Kosenmark five months before.
Gerek scanned the ceiling and spotted a vent placed where none would normally be found. It was true, then, what Dedrick had claimed. The man had rebuilt the house to install listening vents and pipes, closets with secret panels, all manner of means to overhear conversations between the courtesans and their clients, between friends and enemies. And strangers most of all.
“Are you well?”
Kathe stood in the doorway, a tray balanced against one hip.
“Why do you s-say that?” Gerek demanded.
“You were staring so. I knocked,” she added. “And you had left the door unlocked.”
“I-I—” Gerek forced himself to speak deliberately. “I am weary from the road. But I do not wish to keep Lord Kosenmark waiting.”
“You will see Mistress Denk first,” Kathe said. “She knows you’ve arrived. But you have time to refresh yourself. I brought you coffee and tea, and some biscuits and cold meats. Would you prefer wine?”
“No wine,” he said shortly. Wine made his tongue even more uncertain.
Kathe said nothing to his abrupt speech. She slipped past him and set to work, laying out the dishes and cups onto the table by the window. In the room’s diffuse light, he could see her features clearly for the first time. Her face was round and pleasant, her eyes a dark and brilliant brown. Her hands, he noticed, were deft, her fingers slender, and the nails clipped short.
When she finished, she glanced up and met his gaze directly, in a way he found both disconcerting and refreshing. “For your comfort and refreshment,” she said. “And please, do not be anxious. Lord Kosenmark told me himself you were not to hurry on his account.”
Over her shoulder, Gerek caught his reflection in the mirror. Plain round face, the chin blurring into folds of skin. Broad shoulders and chest. A study in brown, even to the robe he wore. His mother affectionately called him her favorite ox.
He jerked his glance away. “Thank you,” he said stiffly.
She paused, as though she expected him to say more. Her eyes narrowed. Assessing.
“You are right to be careful here,” she said, and was gone.
* * *
THE MAIDS BROUGHT his clothes—brushed and pressed—before he finished his coffee and biscuits. Luckily, none of them offered to help him dress. When he had resumed his clothing, a runner took him through a labyrinth of hallways and galleries, up two flights of stairs, to a wing populated entirely with offices. They were all beautiful and yet utterly businesslike, very unlike the frothy silk-strewn chambers he’d glimpsed below.
Mistress Eva Denk received him with a perfunctory smile. Her office, he noted as he took his seat, was spacious and neat. There were no windows here, but two lamps hung from the ceiling, and a branch of candles sputtered on the table next to her desk. She was exactly like her letters—forthright and competent. He knew her history from his own investigations. She was born in Duenne, had risen from apprentice to senior clerk for one of the leading merchants of the city. After twenty long years with that same merchant, she had given up her position to work for Kosenmark. It spoke of the man’s persuasion.
She offered him wine. He politely refused. That brought another smile. Was she testing him?
“You have an interesting history,” she said.
Denk frowned slightly and let her gaze fall to the papers on her desk. Among them, Gerek recognized his own résumé, plus several letters that ostensibly came from his previous employers, including the letter of introduction from Maester Aereson, a merchant in Ournes Province. Denk would find no fault with any of them. Gerek had written them himself, modeling his career on that of an old tutor. Informal studies at the University at Duenne, regrettably incomplete. Several years at various posts as tutor, scribe, or general factotum. His latest posting had come to an end when Maester Aereson’s sons grew older, and Gerek thought a warmer climate might suit him. An acquaintance had mentioned that Lord Kosenmark needed a new secretary.
“You understand the terms?” Denk asked.
“I do.” Short sentences were best. He could manage those.
“Your pay? Your duties?”
Again he nodded. He was to handle all correspondence and to keep Lord Kosenmark’s schedule. For that he would receive a monthly sum of ten gold denier, plus his room and board. If his duties required finer clothes, say for a meeting with nobles such as Lord Vieth, Lord Kosenmark would provide them. He would have one rest day every week, plus an afternoon to himself twice a month.
It was all very easy and pleasant. Too easy. Denk asked him fewer questions than he expected, and her apparent lack of interest in his credentials puzzled Gerek. He once tried to expand on his supposed employment with Maester Aereson. Mistress Denk had waved aside his speech with the comment, “Lord Kosenmark will want to know surely. The decision is his, not mine, to make.”
It would be, Gerek thought. If everything Dedrick had hinted at were true, this man wanted more than a secretary, he wanted an accomplice.
An accomplice for treason, Gerek thought. But first I need to find the proof, before I go to the king or any of his people.
And he would find it here—he knew it—in this house.
* * *
Lord Kosenmark studied Gerek over the tips of his fingers.
“My lord.” Gerek bowed.
“Sit,” Kosenmark said. “And let us discuss the possibility of your employment here.”
Gerek sat down, unsettled and nervous and trying not to show it. None of Kosenmark’s letters had promised employment outright, but after his interview with Eva Denk, he had begun to relax. He wondered now if he’d given himself away to her, or to Kathe.
I am Maester Gerek Hessler. Second-rate scholar. Nothing more.
The repetition failed to counteract his anxiety. He had taken several great chances in this endeavor. He had used a name nearly like his own, thinking he would remember it better, and trusting that Dedrick would never have mentioned a poor second cousin to this man. He had involved his brother and old tutor to handle any untoward inquiries. At the time, these had seemed like reasonable risks.
The voices chattered at him, more insistent than before. Fool. Idiot. Useless.
Kosenmark continued to study him in return. He was as handsome as all the reports claimed—golden-eyed and fair, his pale brown skin almost luminescent against his blue-black hair. Sculptors who followed the classicist school might use him as a model for Toc, the brother-god and consort of Lir, except that Toc was blind, and this man’s eyes were whole, unnervingly bright and direct. The one element, which everyone knew about, but which Gerek still found unexpected, was his voice.
He speaks like a woman. A woman with a husky voice, but nevertheless not a man, not even a tenor.
In his latter years, when his mind ran feverishly upon conspiracies, Baerne of Angersee had insisted on a peculiar sacrifice by his nearest councillors. They would be gelded, or they would lose their place, and therefore their influence. Later, when he took the throne, Baerne’s grandson had dismissed these men from Duenne’s Court. Some said it was a way for Armand to establish his own rule, to declare that his famous grandfather would not overshadow his reign. Others said Lord Markus Khandarr had influenced the new king to ensure his own preeminence.
Most of those unwanted councillors hid themselves away. They had sacrificed their manhood and could not bear it when Armand dismissed them. But this man—he lived. More than that. He had fashioned a network of advisers and colleagues and agents throughout Veraene—a shadow court, through which Kosenmark continued to influence Veraene’s politics from afar.
Clever, handsome, determined. And only a year or two older than Gerek himself.
Everything I am not.
“Do I meet with your approval, Maester Hessler?” Kosenmark said drily.
Gerek shook himself into attention. “My apologies, my lord. I-I was merely—”
“Wondering about my sexual habits and how I might satisfy them, in spite of my shortcomings. You need not stutter. The entire world knows.”
Gerek’s cheeks burned with humiliation. For once, anger kept his tongue under control. “What the world knows is not my concern, my lord. My thoughts are my own. Whether or not you’ve guessed their shape correctly, I will not discuss their finer details.”
Kosenmark blinked. Then his lips curved into a slow smile. “Harlaef the Younger. Of the late empire, in his letter to the emperor answering certain unfounded charges. So you are a scholar.”
“Did you doubt me, my lord?”
“Not exactly. But there are degrees of truth, just as there are degrees of scholarship.”
He likes to play with words and double meanings. He likes to provoke people.
“If you doubt me, s-send me away,” Gerek said. “My lord. As you must kn-know from my history, it would not be the first time.”
Those wide eyes settled on him, and Kosenmark’s expression changed subtly. No longer bland, nor edged with bitter humor. Gerek thought he detected a wincing moment of painful memory, chased by sympathy for Gerek himself.
“Very well,” Kosenmark said in that disturbingly high voice. “Let us discuss our true business. You seek employment as a secretary or assistant. I have need of one as you undoubtedly heard.”
Gerek bowed his head. This was the nearest Kosenmark had come to mentioning the woman who had served him as secretary, before she became his lover. Gerek would not make the mistake, however, of betraying how much he knew. Just before their interview ended, Mistress Denk had offered one piece of pointed advice. Whatever you say or do, never mention the name Ilse Zhalina to Lord Kosenmark. He will not forgive that.
“Your credentials are adequate,” Kosenmark said.
Again, Gerek nodded. He had worked over those credentials for precisely that impression.
“I’m curious about your university career. You never formally applied there.”
A nod would not suffice this time. “N-no, my lord. I-I had not enough—”
“Not enough money?” Kosenmark waved a hand. “Forgive me. I should not interrupt. Speak as you must.”
Another double meaning. Gerek drew a long breath and considered his reply. “No money. As well, I could not s-settle on one course of s-study. I wished to explore without cons-straint, my lord.”
That caught the man’s attention. His eyes narrowed—in humor this time. “Go on.”
“History, my lord. It is not complete without the literature of those times. The reverse is also true.”
“What about economics? You studied that as well.”
“For practical reasons, my lord. Money is an essential element of the world, no matter which century you examine.”
He finished the sentence, let his breath trickle out in relief that he had uttered the thing complete. Kosenmark must have noticed that small reaction, however, because he leaned forward and fixed Gerek with his gaze. “You have difficulty speaking, but not when you feel strongly about the matter. Tell me what else moves you.”
Truth, Gerek thought. The bonds of trust and friendship and family.
He’d known little of them in his life. To say that out loud was more than he could bear—not to this cold, clever young man.
“You are thinking hard,” Kosenmark observed.
“The s-subject is n-n-not an easy one, my lord.”
Kosenmark stared at him a longer moment, but when Gerek said nothing more, he leaned back with a disappointed sigh. “You speak several languages, yes?”
So they were back to the formal give-and-take of the interview. “Old Veraenen,” Gerek said. “Erythandran. Enough to read texts from the empire days. And s-some Immatran.”
Gerek suppressed a tremor of excitement. “Yes, my lord.”
He hesitated. “N-not as well.”
“But enough to puzzle out a letter or essay.”
“Yes, my lord.”
A brief silence followed. Kosenmark tapped his fingers against each other. Gerek waited, trying to keep from shifting nervously on the hard wooden chair. Off to one side stood an enormous hourglass, an extraordinary creation with several globes that worked together to measure minutes and hours. Even as he noticed it, the globes revolved slowly around to begin their measuring anew. Outside, bells rang the hour.
Kosenmark leaned forward again and slapped his hands on the desk, startling Gerek. “You know the salary? Mistress Denk explained that to you, of course. Is that acceptable?”
Gerek nodded dumbly.
“Well, then. Consider yourself hired.”
“No need to hesitate, Maester Hessler. You are moderately qualified. I have moderate needs. If you agree, we can begin our work at once. What do you say?”
Gerek met Kosenmark’s gaze as directly as he dared. He saw nothing but boredom in the man’s expression. He was not fooled. Dedrick had told him once that you could never trust Raul Kosenmark’s outward appearance. It was only by truly listening—by measuring the silences between words, catching the swift tension in his full mouth, the change of brightness in those golden eyes—that you began to understand the hidden man and his moods.
There was only one means for doing so.
He bowed his head. “Thank you. I will begin my work at once.”
Copyright © 2012 by Beth Bernobich