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Friday, 27 June 2014 00:00

Intimations of Evil by Cary Lenehan

Dochra was an incomplete town. Three rows of adobe houses formed the three sides of a hollow square facing the spring that fed the only permanent water of the lake. Basil gazed over a large square, several hundred paces across, and well used by caravans and army units to camp in, from the marks and the floating dust and, despite the best efforts of the local sweeper, the faint sweet smell of animal shit. The military post was a small one on the side closest to the lake along with a stable, an inn and a hall. He had been here before, just passing through as he was now, and had not reported in then. He guessed that the post saw more messengers than anything else.

There was a rail outside to hitch horses onto and a wooden watering trough. By the time that Basil had reached the post the rider behind had well and truly emerged from the palms behind him. By the time he had his horses all tied up the other was beside him. It had to be Theodora. She was equipped as an insakharl kataphractoi. The horse must have good stamina to still be moving so well in the heat with all the armour it carried. What is more she not only rode in full armour in the safe heart of the Empire, but had the mail drape of the helm worn over her face to hide her features.

The armour was nice work, but looking over it, the saddle and the rest of the tack, he could see that it had not been cared for properly for the last week or so. No one who had actually been through the real officers’ schools would have allowed that. He itched to get to work. It didn’t take long, even in this heat, for sweat drops to form rust and to weaken the leather and cause it to break. Despite the lance and weapons, the armour was obviously that of a mage, albeit one who expected to see combat. It was high quality, inlaid with mystic symbols and runes and very expensive. Basil fussed around with the horses for a bit so that she entered the post first with him on her heels. He wanted to be seen by the post as being with her. He hung back at a servant’s distance as she approached the desk.

“I am Salimah al Sabah,” she said in a musical, and very sexy, voice. “I am on a tour of the Empire before I must join my unit. Do you have accommodation in the post?”  It was a practiced line. She must have been using it for several days at all the posts from Ardlark.

“I am sorry ma’am,” said the human sergeant behind the desk. “This is a very small post. All of our travellers here, even the ones here on duty, use the inn and stable at the other end of this row.”  He sounded regretful and his hand vaguely waved in that direction. “I am sure that they will have accommodation for you and your servant.”

“My servant?” she asked looking around puzzled. “I don’t have a servant.”

“Do you need one?” asked Basil keenly as if a very young man out on his own and alone. “My master was bitten by a snake and has died. I have just buried him up on the knoll near town and I am free to take other work. I can send his horse back to Ardlark from here with a note to his unit. That is all that would be expected of me. I am not in the army and so am not obliged to go myself. He would prefer me to gain work rather than go without.”

The woman calling herself Salimah thought for a moment. She had been telling herself she needed a servant. Maybe God had been listening. “What makes you desirable as a servant and what makes you think that I need a servant?” she asked.

“If milady will pardon me, your clothing that I can see under your armour shows that it needs some attention that would be beneath you. I am a good cook. I have served as an officer’s batman and am competent in caring for most wounds. Alas,” he added ruefully “unless I have a potion, I have no skill in dealing with poisons. I can care for milady’s clothes and know how to wash and mend. I have worked in both the field and in garrisons. Is that what milady seeks?” replied Basil.

This time she paused only briefly. She really needed a servant. Her armour needed attention?  It was new. She hadn’t even thought of it needing attention. She glanced down and, for the first time noted flecks and spots. She supposed that she really did need him. Oh well, she had just expected to have a woman servant. Still this small lad, almost two hands shorter than her, looked eager and, if he could do all that he said she would be well off. Her clothes were sticky with sweat and she had no idea how to clean them. In the palace she had always just put them on the floor and they had been taken care of—she had never even paid attention to whoever did it. “I will give you a trial,” she said. “I have never employed someone before. What do I pay you?”

“We will work that out when you decide if I am suitable,” replied Basil. “I am called Basil Akritas milady, or as my employer, you can call me by my family name of Kutsulbalik.”  She smiled at this. He had noted that she was obviously a noble and used to being called milady, despite claiming to be military. She did not realise that a junior insakharl officer, such as she claimed to be, even if they were a mage, would have corrected him and demanded to be called ‘ma’am’, even if she was from a noble house.

“I will be leaving a horse tethered outside,” Basil said quietly to the post sergeant, as the woman waited, trying not to be overheard in what he said. “It belonged to my late master. There is a note in a saddlebag. Apart from feed and water nothing needs to be done with the beast. Please arrange for the horse to be sent to Strategos Panterius in Ardlark.”  
The sergeant suddenly paid more attention to the servant, but again Salimah showed no reaction, again confirming that she was not who she said she was. Any soldier of any rank should know the name of the head of the Antikataskopeía.

“Of course,” said the Sergeant and saluted Basil with a fist placed over the heart. Luckily Salimah had turned away. Basil frowned briefly at the sergeant, who quickly dropped his hand.

Additional Info

  • Written by: Cary Lenehan
  • Country: Australia
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