Sohata woke after yet another fitful night. He could not go on like this. Ven was worried about him, he could see it in his eyes. Faithful Ven, the only one of his servants willing to follow him into disgrace. He sat up in bed and Ven came through the door with a steaming mug of morning brew on a tray.
“Good morning, my lord. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, of course. Thank you, Ven.” Sohata took the mug and sipped thankfully.
It was a fiction, and they both knew it, but propriety demanded certain answers of certain questions. Sohata could no more break that code after a lifetime of training than he could walk through the streets unclothed.
“Bring me my writing desk, Ven.”
Sohata scribbled a brief note, sealed it with his personal seal, and handed it to Ven. “Please have a page deliver this to Seer Syma. Then help me dress for the day. I think formal but casual, today.”
Ven nodded with doubt in his eyes. Should his prince really be revealing anything to the powerful seer? Sohata noted the doubt and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nothing can be a secret here, you know. Especially when I’ve had search parties out for Jeric every day. She already knows everything and is probably waiting for me to send for her. I’m only being polite by inviting her before she gets impatient and comes to see me during an audience. I’ve written I’ll see her in the Green room in an hour.”
Ven nodded again and turned away. He was gone a moment and then returned. “It’s off to Syma now, my prince.”
Sohata climbed out of bed and stripped off his nightshirt. He raised his arms and Ven dropped the first of his undershirts over his head. It would be most of the allotted hour before he was fully dressed in his regalia.
An hour later, refreshed by another cup of morning brew, Sohata strode down the hall towards the Green room, the smallest of his audience rooms.
He nodded formally as he entered the room. “Seer Syma. Thank you for making the time to see me today.”
The small woman with gray hair did not rise from the couch she was seated on, but she inclined her head. “Thank you for inviting me, Prince Sohata.”
Sohata took his seat across from her. He crossed his legs at the knee and leaned back. “I am sure you know that my son has been missing these three weeks.”
“Yes, I had heard that.”
“I have heard nothing. I have searched the city, and no one has seen him.”
“Then he is not kidnapped.”
“Did he leave a note?”
“No.” Sohata lowered his eyes in regret. “There was no need. He stormed out after he and I had words.”
“I see. Had you exchanged words in the past?”
“Yes. The day before, he threatened to run away. I didn’t believe him.”
“Won’t leave his room and won’t speak to me. I will not force him. I do not want him to carry tales to my son when he returns.”
“I wish to visit with this young man. Ask for him to be brought here.”
“As you wish.” Sohata reached for the bell pull beside his couch and pulled gently. Ven entered the room, eyes cast down. “Go to Vetaya’s room and bring him here to visit with Seer Syma.”
Ven nodded his acknowledgement and left the room as silently as he had entered. Sohata and Syma sat in silence, eyes on the floor. Sohata watched the lower edge of Syma’s black dress, swaying slightly around her feet as she breathed.
After a time, the door opened again. Ven entered, with his hand around the wrist of a young man with tousled blonde hair. His clothes were wrinkled. He didn’t lower his eyes respectfully, but stared around the room wide-eyed. He glared at Sohata, but when his gaze landed on Syma, he dropped his eyes.
Sohata spoke softly, without looking up from the floor. “Seer Syma, I present to you the boon companion of my son, Vetaya.”
Vetaya’s lip curled. “Boon companion. Some boon companion I am. He left me here.”
Syma looked at him without blinking. “Young man. Your contempt is not necessary. Your companion did what he had to do. You would have slowed him down. You would both have been caught. You might have been hurt. He couldn’t risk that.”
Vetaya blinked. He cast his eyes to the floor for the first time since entering the room. He took a deep breath and bit his lip. He spoke again, softly. “Thank you, Seer.”
“Now.” Syma spoke forcefully. “Tell us all you know about your companion’s flight. We must know, so we can find him. This land is dangerous and the dragons not always friendly.”
Vetaya knelt where he stood. “Mira, miro. He had been talking ever since we came here about going off exploring on his own. He wanted to see more of the dragons. He wanted to use the skills he learned last year at his grandfather’s. I counseled caution, but he would not listen. Every day we went out into the markets where he talked to all who would talk to him. Rich, poor, human, dragon. He talked to everyone.”
Sohata interrupted. “I knew that. That’s what we argued over.”
Vetaya nodded. “He began collecting supplies. He hid them first in our room, but when I threatened to tell you, miro, he moved them to another place. He didn’t tell me where, but I followed him to the stables one day. That was the day before he left.” He lowered his face into his hands. “If only I had told you then.”
No one spoke for a moment.
Syma spoke. “Ven, please fill the bowl in my bag with clear, cold water.” She gestured to a bag at her feet.
Ven looked at Sohata, who nodded. Ven knelt by the bag and removed a bowl made of a single large shell. The interior shimmered iridescently. He walked out of the room and returned a moment later with the bowl full of water. He set it carefully down on the low table between Syma and Sohata.
Syma leaned forward and put her hands on either side of the bowl. She stared into the water, not blinking. The still water began to swirl. A long time later, she lifted her head. She spoke in a distant voice, not looking at anyone.
“I see Jeric. He kneels on a bank in a wood under a shrub. He stares down into a clearing in the wood. Tents in rows fill the clearing. Women in black uniforms move about between the tents. They clean and cook and drill. Some stand guard. There are no men.
“Two women come through the wood. The black-haired one strides firmly and glares. The blonde in the rear watches the other woman, not her feet. She moves through the wood effortlessly. The one in front spots Jeric and pulls him from under the shrub by his shoulder. No one speaks. The women march Jeric to the largest tent and go inside. My sight is blocked from the tent interior.
“The women come out from the tent with Jeric and another woman. Jeric’s hands are tied behind his back. The third woman orders the other two to run a rope between his back and his hands and tie the rope, high above their heads, to a post lashed to another post. Jeric is pulled into the air by that rope. His feet dangle in the air and his shoulders are wrenched upward. He doesn’t cry out. The third woman gestures and he is lowered to the ground. He doesn’t stumble. He glares at her. They tie him to a post by the tent entrance. The two women walk back to the wood and the other one steps back in the tent.
“I can hear a dragon crying. I cannot see her, but she cries into the wind for her family.”
Syma stopped speaking. The room was silent.
Sohata was the first to speak. “This is wrong. Someone is building power against the Empire. This must be stopped.”
He rose to his feet. “Thank you, Seer Syma, for your visit and your visions. Much is made clear now. Ven and Vetaya, please see me in my chambers now.”
The two companions stood and paced out the door. Sohata turned back to Syma. He held out his hands. “Your vision of my son means a lot to me. It is good to know he is alive right now, even if he has fallen into dangerous hands. Thank you.”
Syma took Sohata’s hands and smiled. “I am always happy to help, my lord. Will you be needing anything else?”
“No, I don’t believe so. I am going to lead a party out to find Jeric and stop this madness of power accumulation against the Empire. We will leave within the week.”
“I will come with you.”
Syma’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Why not?”
Sohata stared at her. He had not expected this disobedience from her. When he spoke, people obeyed. At least anyone less than the Emperor did. He marshalled his thoughts and answered. “It is too dangerous. You are a precious jewel of wisdom and must not be risked in a campaign.”
“Humph. You mean, I’m too old, I’m a woman, and I don’t know what I’m doing. Young man, I was exiled here to the dragons’ land when you were still in short pants. I helped make this city a sancutary for humans. I won’t slow you down if that’s what you’re worried about. And I still have a good few years left in me yet. As far as being a woman, surely you noticed that the camp had only women. No men. I expect I’ll be in far less danger in that camp than you and the rest of your party.”
“I still forbid it. You must stay here to report to me the state of the city while I am gone.”
“My apprentice can do that. You wouldn’t leave me in charge, anyway. I’m coming with you.”
Sohata looked at her determined face, and realized further argument was useless. “I will consider it. We will be marching with a regiment. Before I can agree, I need your assurance you won’t slow us down.” He hoped that would change her mind.
“You have it. You know nothing of me, and I assure you that I am capable of keeping up with a marching regiment. I will meet you when you are ready to march out of town.” She swept past him, and out the door.
Sohata blinked. Perhaps he had underestimated the old woman. He shrugged and strode out of the room. If she could keep up, did it really matter if she came along?
The next day, Sohata marched out of the city at the head of a regiment of the city guard. Ven and Vetaya marched behind him, followed by the company. A wagon rumbled at the end of the line of men. Sohata wondered where Seer Syma was. He had not communicated with her since that scene in the Green Room. He had been too busy finding a regiment that was ready to march on a moment’s notice, and collecting the necessary supplies for a long journey. Besides, he thought, if a seer really wanted to go with someone, she would find out herself when they were leaving.
They had marched far enough that Sohata had stopped expecting Syma, when he was startled by a voice at his side. “You thought I wasn’t coming, didn’t you?”