“So you’re really going to Penar?” said Sevish. He was a charming disgraced son of the local nobility, always busy with some scheme or other to get back in favour.
We’d met as I passed through the city of Alak. I still kept moving back then, although I no longer woke in a sweat, grabbing for my sword. Not every night, anyway.
“I’m sorry.” I liked Sevish, but not his city. There was a rigid class hierarchy and such rank suspicion of outsiders that without Sevish, I’d have had trouble earning enough to live. And it had a sickly air; everyone but the very rich seemed pallid and tired. I often felt quite low myself. Sevish, too, occasionally drooped and paled; then he’d head off to his alchemist and come back restored. I’d wondered about that, but whatever he took seemed to do him no harm.
“Well, if you must go, take a package for the Governor,” he said.
“What’s in it?”
“It’s nothing illegal.”
“You know I’m going to check.”
“All right,” he said. “Here.”
It was a small portrait of Sevish, in very smart clothes probably borrowed for the occasion.
“The governor’s daughter is of marriageable age,” he said.
I grinned. “I see.”
“Well, you’re not staying. And I know I’m not like most noble sons, but the young lady has a taste for the unusual. So has her father. I can only hope.”
“You and your schemes!” I said. “And you can’t tell me this wasn’t all planned out already. What would this noble lady think if I was still around, eh?”
“I’m sure she’d love you,” he said, but he had the grace, I thought, to look slightly embarrassed.
I had to laugh. “All right,” I said. “Is there a message?”
“Tell the Governor who it’s from, and that I hope he and his daughter find it pleasing.”
“That’s all? You don’t want to send something to the girl?”
“There’s no need,” he said, and pouted. “Anyone would think you were pleased to be rid of me.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “I shall miss you.” We made our farewells – so pleasantly, in fact, that I left rather later than intended.
The Penar Governor’s house was imposing and riddled with servants. They all looked just as tired as the ones I’d seen in Alak, but like them, went about their duties with an obsequious will that I found slightly stomach-turning.
I eventually managed to find someone sufficiently low down to listen to a foreign stranger and sufficiently high up to escort me in, where after some hours in an over-gilded anteroom, I was introduced to the Governor.
He had more chins than neck, and was encased in overstretched green velvet. He took Sevish’s portrait slowly, letting his fingers run over my skin, and barely glanced at the picture before tucking it away. “Excellent,” he said. “Do come and meet my daughter.”
Every single hair on my neck came to attention like soldiers at an unexpected visit from the general. “My lord…I still have the dust of travel on me. I should like to be more presentable.”
“Yes, perhaps that would be appropriate. I’ll get someone to show you to a washroom.”
The servant summoned to lead me was tight-lipped and monosyllabic. “Is something wrong?” I said.
“What could be wrong?” She left me to it. I didn’t undress. What could be wrong indeed? But my gut was clenching like a fist. I heard chatter passing outside and listened hard.
“Don’t worry, Lis. You know what it’s like with outsiders, they never get promoted.”
“It’s disgusting, though. I mean, a foreigner! I don’t know how they can. I’d be ill.”
Whatever that meant I didn’t like it. I stripped down, soaped up, and dragged a handy bench under the only window.
Amazing what soapy skin and desperation can do for a girl. I made it through, not without some bruises, and dropped onto the grass below.
Keeping low and dressing as I went, I passed another window, where I saw the Governor, and his daughter, and one of the higher servants. The servant was kneeling in front of the girl, her hands on his shoulders.
She was pretty, flushed with high colour, sparkling-eyed. I could see why Sevish was keen.
The servant, on the other hand, looked about to keel over, and did, collapsing bonelessly on the floor.
The Governor knelt down, felt the man’s neck, and shook his head. “Damn,” he said. “I really hoped he might make promotion. Been in the family for years.”
“Oh, Papa, you worry too much,” she said. “There are always more of them. Now, where’s my present?”
That, I realised, would be me.
“Hello, Sevish. This would be your ‘alchemist’, then,” I said.
Sevish’s hands jerked up from the shoulders of the girl before him. She swayed, dazed.
“Babylon,” Sevish said. “How…”
By then I had steel at his throat. “Promotion,” I said. “Tell me, do any of them survive the process? Try and be honest for once in your life. I’m feeling somewhat disinclined to be lied to. Again.”
“Well…” he said. “Sometimes.”
“You hear that?” I said to the girl. “Is that what they tell you? Or do you get told that there’s a very good chance you’ll join the ranks of the nobles, even though you don’t know anyone who actually has?”
“I’ve a better chance than some,” she said. “After all, Sevish loves me.”
“Yeah, he told me that, too,” I said.
“But you’re a foreigner,” she said. “You mean he…”
“Oh yeah. Often and enthusiastically.”
“You’re disgusting.” She slapped Sevish hard, rocking his head sideways.
Unfortunately, my blade was still at his throat.
I told the girl to make herself scarce as I did likewise. She might be a dim little bigot, but she wasn’t a murderer, except by accident.
Sevish aged drastically in death. I aged a bit too in the City of Alak, but mainly on the inside.