Home > The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(9)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(9)
Author: Peter V. Brett

“Ahmann Jardir is dead,” Arther said. “Whatever might have gone before, I think any ties you had to the Krasians died with him. After the Battle of Docktown, there can be no doubt that the new Krasian leader sees the Hollow as his enemy, and I know you well enough to trust you will not surrender it to him.”

“Corespawned right,” Wonda said.

“My lord is dead as well,” Arther said, the indignation in his aura gnawed away by a growing emptiness. “I know you loved him, and he you. Both of you were…free with your affections before you met. It is not my place to judge.”

“You sent regular reports to Minister Janson,” Leesha said.

“We all did, including His Highness,” Arther said. “Thamos hid nothing from the ivy throne.”

“Janson is dead now, too,” Leesha said. “And the ledgers of the Hollow are closed. You said yourself, the Angiers we knew is gone. The Hollow must find its own path.”

“You mean to be Duchess of the Hollow,” Arther guessed.

“And if I do?” Leesha asked. “Is your loyalty to me—to the Hollow—or to the ivy throne?”

Arther took a step back, unsheathing the ceremonial fencing spear on his back. Wonda twitched, but Leesha stayed her with a hand as Arther laid the weapon on the floor before the bed and knelt. “To you and the Hollow, my lady. I swear it by the Creator, and will swear again in the sun.”

Leesha held out a hand, and Arther took it. “And I swear to be worthy of your trust, First Minister.”

Arther kissed her hand. “Thank you, my lady.”

He rolled back on his heels, getting smoothly to his feet as he took a writing board from the satchel at his waist. “In that case, I’ve received dozens of requests for your calendar already, and there are a number of pressing matters…”

Leesha sighed, but felt much of her stress wash away with it. She glanced at the nursery. “You have until Olive begins to cry, Minister.”

Leesha’s back spasmed as she scrawled the words for what seemed the thousandth time. Thamos’ chair was a great carved monstrosity, chosen more for intimidation than comfort. Magic helped speed her recovery, but she did not want to grow dependent upon it, especially with Olive suckling hungrily a dozen times a day.

She put one hand on the writhing muscles at the small of her back and stretched. She’d been signing since midmorning. Outside the office window, the sky was darkening.

Minister Arther snatched up the paper, laying it atop the completed pile even as he placed another in front of her. “Fifty thousand klats for horse barding bearing Baron Cutter’s arms.” Arther swept the pertinent numbers with the end of his pen before drawing a quick X at the bottom. “Sign here.”

Leesha scanned the page. “This is ridiculous. I’m not approving that. The baron can spend his own money dressing up his horses. There are hungry mouths to feed.”

“Your pardon, mistress,” Arther said, “but the order was completed a month ago. The baron has his barding, and the vendor is owed payment.”

“How did it go through without approval?” Leesha asked.

“His Highness left Baron Cutter in charge, and the man would rather box a wood demon than pick up a pen.” Arther sniffed. “Apparently among the Hollowers, spitting on your hand is considered a binding contract.”

“Most of them can’t read, anyway.” Leesha grit her teeth as she bent and signed, then glanced at the tall, unruly stack of papers the baron’s clerk had sent over. “Are they all like this?”

“I’m afraid so,” Arther said. “The people needed a symbol to rally to in the absence of the count and yourself. Especially after Mr. and Mrs. Bales disappeared. In that, Baron Cutter was a great success. As an administrator, he…left much to be desired.”

Leesha nodded. She could not pretend this was news to her; she had known Gared all her life. The people loved and trusted him. He was one of them—first of the Cutters to answer Arlen Bales’ call to take their axes into the night. He’d put himself between the Hollowers and the demons every night since, and they all knew it. Folk slept better, knowing Gared Cutter was in charge.

But he was much better at spending money than he was at counting it. Leesha could stamp an endless number of klats, but they were only worth as much as the people believed them to be.

“Would you still seek his employ if I asked for your resignation?” Leesha asked.

Arther blew a breath through his nose. “That was an empty threat, mistress. Baron Cutter goes through clerks faster than mugs of ale. Squire Emet resigned after the baron threatened to tear his arms off.”

Leesha sighed. “And if I ordered you to go, and him to take you?”

“I might break my oath and defect to Krasia,” Arther said, and Leesha laughed so hard it rasped her throat.

Her eyes moved back to the pile of papers, and the humor left her. She rubbed her temple, massaging the dull ache that would soon blossom into pain if she didn’t have something to eat and an hour alone in her garden. “Gared needs a clerk that’s not afraid of him.”

“I don’t know where you’ll find such a man, this side of Arlen Bales,” Arther said.

“I wasn’t thinking of a man,” Leesha said. “Wonda?”

“Don’t look at me, mistress,” Wonda said. “I’m worse with papers than Gar.”

“Be a dear and fetch Miss Lacquer, then,” Leesha said.

Wonda smiled. “Ay, mistress.”

“Thank you for coming, Emelia.” Leesha swept a hand at one of the chairs by her desk. “Please, take a seat.”

“Thank you, Countess.” Rosal dipped a smooth, practiced curtsy, snapping her skirts as she rose so that when she seated herself, not a fold was out of place.

“Please just call me mistress,” Leesha said. “Tea?”

Rosal nodded. “Yes, please, mistress.”

Leesha signaled to Wonda. The woman could thread a needle with her bow, and she had an equally adept pour, carrying two steaming cups and saucers in one hand like a pair of klats.

“How have you found the Hollow thus far?” Leesha asked as she took her cup.

“Wonderful.” Rosal dropped a sugar in her tea, stirring. “Everyone’s been so welcoming. They’re all excited about the wedding. Even your mother has offered to help with the planning.”

“Oh?” This was the first Leesha had heard of it. It seemed unthinkable that Elona might offer to help anyone out of the goodness of her heart, Emelia Lacquer most of all.

Rosal nodded. “She’s introduced me to the best florists and seamstresses, and offered some…interesting advice on the dress.”

“My mother isn’t one to waste excess cloth,” Leesha said. “Especially on top.”

Rosal lifted her cup with a wink. “I’ve worn worse than anything your mum can dream up. But not this time. Rosal was for other men. Gared’s going to get a bride out of a Jongleur’s tale.”

“Gared’s not getting anything until his paperwork gets done,” Leesha said, indicating the pile on her desk.

Rosal nodded. “Papers aren’t Gar’s strength. After the wedding I can…”

“That’s not going to do, dear,” Leesha said. “Need I remind you of your debt to me?”

Rosal shook her head. Leesha had kept the Duchess Mum from throwing her in prison after the scandal at court. “Of course not, mistress.”

“Good,” Leesha said. “Amanvah’s dice said I could trust you to be loyal to the Hollow, and I need someone like that on my side right now.”

Rosal set down her saucer and sat up straight, hands in her lap. “How can I help?”

Leesha pointed to the stack. “Tell your promised he doesn’t get his seedpods drained until you sit him down and make him balance his ledgers.”

Rosal raised an eyebrow, a slight smirk twitching at her mouth. “Why, mistress, I have never once drained the baron’s seedpods. We are unwed! Think of the scandal!”

The smirk spread into a smile. “But I keep his tree at attention. Told him I won’t have it out of his breeches unless he’s tied down. Now whenever we’re alone he runs for the shackles.”

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