7 Nevrine (continued)
We thanked him and set out. Hasskian is an old city, older than Venetry, and its age shows in the narrowness of its streets, which are worn slick from the passage of hundreds of thousands of feet over the last five hundred years, and the narrowness of its houses, built right up against one another, some of them sharing common walls. It was cleaner than I remembered; I think they finally put in modern plumbing sometime in the last seven years, because no one was dumping chamber pots out the windows. Another one of Endolessar’s plans to improve the lives of his citizens and make himself look good at the same time. I wonder how much it cost. Well, we weren’t in the slums, so maybe those were as smelly and dangerous as I remembered.
The people of Hasskian didn’t look as if they were afraid of whatever danger the foreign “invaders” might pose. They were as friendly as city-dwellers ever get, which is to say they’re happy to nod in greeting, but they have an air about them that says they won’t intrude on your business and they expect the same courtesy from you. I like that about cities. The streets were full of people going about their business, but not so full that we had trouble getting from the gate to the Citadel.
The grand-sounding building is actually just a manor in a part of Hasskian that was razed about a hundred years ago so the rich could build larger, nicer, more solitary houses than were available in Hasskian at the time. It looks like a tiny castle, with turrets that couldn’t possibly have full-sized rooms in them and whitewashed stone and a little front door that’s a replica of Hasskian’s gate and, unbelievably, a moat. Endolessar’s great-grandparents built it, and people actually travel great distances to see it. I guess some people are so bored they’ll do anything for entertainment.
There was a guard standing at attention outside the gate (standing open, tiny portcullis raised) but we showed him our papers and he waved us through without even examining them. Inside, the Citadel looked even more like a castle. Our footsteps echoed off the twenty-foot-high stone ceiling, ribbed with more stone, and tapestries hung on every wall.
Opposite the door was an arched opening through which I could see a long, long table and an equally long fireplace holding what appeared to be most of an oak tree, ashy with the residue of past fires. A stone staircase with no handrail ran up one wall to a gallery high above. It was hard to imagine anyone being brave enough to use it. Well, I would, but even I would think it was pointless.
A man emerged from the dining hall, straightening his over-robe. “Papers,” he said, extending a hand. He had dark gray hair swept back from his forehead and the pinched look of someone who’d smelled something unpleasant. We handed our papers over and he scrutinized them as the guard had not. “What magic have you?” he said.
“I can—” I began.
“Show me, woman, don’t talk me to death,” he said, which made me want to set his over-robe on fire. It was elaborate brocade shot with gold, and his fussiness about it made me want even more to set it on fire, but I controlled my impatience and again summoned water. I admit I could have chosen any pouvra to demonstrate, but I opted for the one that would be the most annoying, and it worked. He took some quick steps backward to avoid the splash and said, “How dare you!”
“You did tell me to do it,” I pointed out, and he subsided, growling. Jeddan was more circumspect and just put his hand through the nearest wall, which impressed the man more than my display had.
“Very well,” he said, and removed a little book from inside his robe, which reminded me I really needed to find a new book soon. He flipped through the pages, took a tiny pencil from a loop of fabric near the spine, and said, as he wrote, “Come back in two weeks and the Lord Governor will see you.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “We can’t wait that long! We have very urgent news for the Lord Governor.”
“Don’t they all,” the man said, snapping his book shut and returning it to his hidden pocket. “Two weeks.”
“I—all right,” I said, sizing the man up and liking the conclusion I came to. I’ve had to talk my way in and out of situations since I was twelve, and the first thing you learn, when you have to live that way, is to judge what kind of person you’re bluffing. Some people, it’s just a waste of time. Others will believe anything you say. This man was in the middle somewhere. I felt reasonably confident I could get him to bend my way so long as I kept a straight face and didn’t let up on the pressure. And, at worst, he’d kick us out.
“That’s a good policy,” I said, “since I’ve heard he’s a very efficient man who hates wasting time.”
“True,” the man said, though he looked wary at how reasonable I’d suddenly become.
“What’s your surname, please?” I said.
He analyzed this for traps. “Messkala,” he said.
“Good name. Easy to remember. Don’t you think it’s easy to remember?” I said to Jeddan.
“I know I won’t forget it,” Jeddan said.
“Me neither. All right, Messkala, we’ll come back in two weeks and give our news to the Lord Governor then. Which news, I promise you, is not only important but timely. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be furious when he finds out we waited so long to pass that news along to him.” I leaned right up into Messkala’s face. He was starting to look uncertain. “And at that point, he’s going to want to know why it took so long. And it’s going to be no trouble at all for me to tell him your name. I wonder what he’ll think of that?”
“You’re bluffing,” Messkala said. He didn’t look very certain of that.
“I could be,” I said, “that’s true. But you should consider whether it will be worse for you if I’m telling the truth and you don’t get me in to see the Lord Governor, or if I’m lying and you do.”
“You’ll have no proof,” he said.
“He knows who arranges his appointments,” I said. “He’ll know you had something to do with it. And he’ll be angry enough that I doubt he’ll care about investigating very much.” I took a step back, easing up on the pressure just enough. “Look, Messkala, he must see, um, magickers every day. I imagine he counts on you to keep track of all that. So he won’t have any idea we were supposed to come in two weeks. Letting us in now won’t hurt anyone, least of all you. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.”
His look of pained superiority was gone, replaced by uncertainty. I gave him my most appealing smile. (I hope. Like I’ve said, I haven’t ever been in a position to look much at my own face.) Finally, he said, “Come with me.”
to be continued…