Assassins Apprentice: The Illustrated Edition | Chapter 18 of 53

Author: Robin Hobb | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 247284 Views | Add a Review

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In some kingdoms and lands, it is the custom that male children will have precedent over female in matters of inheritance. Such has never been the case in the Six Duchies. Titles are inherited solely by order of birth.

The one who inherits a title is supposed to view it as a stewardship. If a lord or lady were so foolish as to cut too much forest at once, or neglect vineyards or let the quality of the cattle become too inbred, the people of the Duchy could rise up and come to ask the King’s justice. It has happened, and every noble is aware it can happen. The welfare of the people belongs to the people, and they have the right to object if their duke stewards it poorly.

When the titleholder weds, he is supposed to keep this in mind. The partner chosen must be willing likewise to be a steward. For this reason, the partner holding a lesser title must surrender it to the next younger sibling. One can only be a true steward of one holding. On occasion this has led to divisions. King Shrewd married Lady Desire, who would have been Duchess of Farrow had she not chosen to accept his offer and become Queen instead. It is said she came to regret her decision and convinced herself that had she remained Duchess, her power would have been greater. She married Shrewd knowing well she was his second queen, and that the first had already borne him two heirs. She never concealed her disdain for the two older Princes and often pointed out that as she was much higher born than King Shrewd’s first queen, she considered her son, Regal, to be more royal than his two half brothers. She attempted to instill this idea in others by her choice of name for her son. Unfortunately for her plans, most saw this ploy as poor taste. Some even mockingly referred to her as the Inland Queen, for when intoxicated she would ruthlessly claim that she had the political influence to unite Farrow and Tilth into a new kingdom, one that would shrug off King Shrewd’s rule at her behest. But most put her claims down to her fondness for intoxicants, both alcoholic and herbal. It is true, however, that before she finally succumbed to her addictions, she was responsible for nurturing the rift between the Inland and Coastal Duchies.

I grew to look forward to my dark-time encounters with Chade. They never had a schedule, nor any pattern that I could discern. A week, even two, might go by between meetings, or he might summon me every night for a week straight, leaving me staggering about my daytime chores. Sometimes he summoned me as soon as the castle was abed; at other times, he called upon me in the wee hours of the morning. It was a strenuous schedule for a growing boy, yet I never thought of complaining to Chade or refusing one of his calls. Nor do I think it ever occurred to him that my night lessons presented a difficulty for me. Nocturnal himself, it must have seemed a perfectly natural time for him to be teaching me. And the lessons I learned were oddly suited to the darker hours of the world.

There was tremendous scope to his lessons. One evening might be spent in my laborious study of the illustrations in a great herbal he kept, with the requirement that the next day I was to collect six samples that matched those illustrations. He never saw fit to hint as to whether I should look in the kitchen garden or the darker nooks of the forest for those herbs, but find them I did, and learned much of observation in the process.

There were games we played, too. For instance, he would tell me that I must go on the morrow to Sara the cook and ask her if this year’s bacon was leaner than last year’s. And then I must that evening report the entire conversation back to Chade, as close to word perfect as I could, and answer a dozen questions for him about how she stood, and was she left-handed and did she seem hard of hearing and what she was cooking at the time. My shyness and reticence were never accounted a good enough excuse for failing to execute such an assignment, and so I found myself meeting and coming to know a good many of the lesser folk of the keep. Even though my questions were inspired by Chade, every one of them welcomed my interest and was more than willing to share expertise. Without intending it, I began to garner a reputation as a “sharp youngster” and a “good lad.” Years later I realized that the lesson was not just a memory exercise but also instruction in how to befriend the commoner folk, and to learn their minds. Many’s the time since then that a smile, a compliment on how well my horse had been cared for, and a quick question put to a stable boy brought me information that all the coin in the kingdom couldn’t have bribed out of him.

Other games built my nerve as well as my powers of observation. One day Chade showed me a skein of yarn and told me that, without asking Mistress Hasty, I must find out exactly where she kept the supply of yarn that matched it and what herbs had been used in the dyeing of it. Three days later I was told I must spirit away her best shears, conceal them behind a certain rack of wines in the wine cellar for three hours, and then return them to where they had been, all undetected by her or anyone else. Such exercises initially appealed to a boy’s natural love of mischief, and I seldom failed at them. When I did, the consequences were my own lookout. Chade had warned me that he would not shield me from anybody’s wrath and suggested that I have a worthy tale ready to explain away being where I should not be or possessing that which I had no business possessing.

I learned to lie very well. I do not think it was taught me accidentally.

These were the lessons in my assassin’s primer. And more. Sleight of hand and the art of moving stealthily. Where to strike a man to render him unconscious. Where to strike a man so that he dies without crying out. Where to stab a man so that he dies without too much blood welling out. I learned it all rapidly and well, thriving under Chade’s approval of my quick mind.

Soon he began to use me for small jobs about the keep. He never told me, ahead of time, if they were tests of my skill, or actual tasks he wished accomplished. To me it made no difference; I pursued them all with a single-minded devotion to Chade and anything he commanded. In spring of that year I treated the wine cups of a visiting delegation from the Bingtown traders so that they became much more intoxicated than they had intended. Later that same month I concealed one puppet from a visiting puppeteer’s troupe so that he had to present the Incidence of the Matching Cups, a lighthearted little folktale, instead of the lengthy historical drama he had planned for the evening. At the High-Summer Feast I added a certain herb to a serving girl’s afternoon pot of tea so that she and three of her friends were stricken with loose bowels and could not wait the tables that night. In fall I tied a thread around the fetlock of a visiting noble’s horse, to give the animal a temporary limp that convinced the noble to remain at Buckkeep two days longer than he had planned. I never knew the underlying reasons for the tasks Chade set me. At that age, I set my mind to how I would do a thing rather than why. And that, too, was a thing that I believe it was intended I learn: to obey without asking why an order was given.

There was one task that absolutely delighted me. Even at the time I knew that the assignment was more than a whim of Chade’s. He summoned me for it in the last bit of dark before dawn. “Lord Jessup and his lady have been visiting this last two weeks. You know them by sight; he has a very long mustache, and she constantly fusses with her hair, even at the table. You know who I mean?”

I frowned. A number of nobles had gathered at Buckkeep to form a council to discuss the increase in raids from the Outislanders. I gathered that the Coastal Duchies wanted more warships, but the Inland Duchies opposed sharing the taxes for what they saw as a purely coastal problem. Lord Jessup and Lady Dahlia were inlanders. Jessup and his mustaches both seemed to have fitful temperaments and to be constantly impassioned. Lady Dahlia, on the other hand, seemed to take no interest at all in the council, but spent most of her time exploring Buckkeep.

“She wears flowers in her hair all the time? They keep falling out?”

“That’s the one,” Chade replied emphatically. “Good. You know her. Now, here’s your task, and I’ve no time to plan it with you. Sometime today, at any moment today, she will send a page to Prince Regal’s room. The page will deliver something—a note, a flower, an object of some kind. You will remove the object from Regal’s room before he sees it. You understand?”

I nodded and opened my mouth to say something, but Chade stood abruptly and almost chased me from the room. “No time; it is nearly dawn!” he declared.

I contrived to be in Regal’s room, in hiding, when the page arrived. From the way the girl slipped in, I was convinced this was not her first mission. She set a tiny scroll and a flower bud on Regal’s pillow and slipped out of the room. In a moment both were in my jerkin, and later under my own pillow. I think the most difficult part of the task was refraining from opening the scroll. I turned scroll and flower over to Chade late that night.

Over the next few days I waited, certain there would be some sort of furor and hoping to see Regal thoroughly discomfited. But to my surprise, there was none. Regal remained his usual self, save that he was even sharper than usual, and seemed to flirt even more outrageously with every lady. As for Lady Dahlia, she suddenly took an interest in the council proceedings and confounded her husband by becoming an ardent supporter of warship taxes. The Queen expressed her displeasure over this change of alliance by excluding Lady Dahlia from a wine tasting in her chambers. The whole thing mystified me, but when I at last mentioned it to Chade, he rebuked me.

“Remember, you are the King’s man. A task is given you, and you do it. And you should be well satisfied with yourself that you completed the given task: That is all you need to know. Only Shrewd may plan the moves and plot his game. You and I, we are playing pieces, perhaps. But we are the best of his markers; be assured of that.”

But early on, Chade found the limits of my obedience. In laming the horse, he had suggested I cut the frog of the animal’s foot. I never even considered doing that. I informed him, with all the worldly wisdom of one who has grown up around horses, that there were many ways to make a horse limp without actually harming him, and that he should trust me to choose an appropriate one. To this day, I do not know how Chade felt about my refusal. He said nothing at the time to condemn it, or to suggest he approved my actions. In this as in many things, he kept his own counsel.

Once every three months or so King Shrewd would summon me to his chambers. Usually the call for me came in the very early morning. I would stand before him, oftentimes while he was in his bath, or having his hair bound back in the gold-wired queue that only the King could wear, or while his man was laying out his clothes. Always the ritual was the same. He would look me over carefully, studying my growth and grooming as if I were a horse he was considering buying. He would ask a question or two, about my horsemanship or weapons study usually, and listen gravely to my brief answer. And then he would ask, almost formally, “And do you feel I am keeping my bargain with you?”

“Sir, I do,” I would always answer.

“Then see that you keep your end of it as well,” was always his reply and my dismissal. And whatever servant attending him or opening the door for me to enter or leave never appeared to take the slightest notice of me or of the King’s words at all.

Come late fall of that year, on the very cusp of winter’s tooth, I was given my most difficult assignment. Chade had summoned me up to his chambers almost as soon as I had blown out my night candle. We were sharing sweetmeats and a bit of spiced wine, sitting in front of Chade’s hearth. He had been lavishly praising my latest escapade, one that required me turning inside out every shirt hung to dry on the laundry courtyard’s drying lines without getting caught. It had been a difficult task, the hardest part of which had been to refrain from laughing aloud and betraying my hiding place within a dyeing vat when two of the younger laundry lads had declared my prank the work of water sprites and refused to do any more washing that day. Chade, as usual, knew of the whole scenario even before I reported to him. He delighted me by letting me know that Master Lew of the launderers had decreed that Sinjon’s wort was to be hung at every corner of the courtyard and garlanded about every well to ward off sprites from tomorrow’s work.

“You’ve a gift for this, boy.” Chade chuckled and tousled my hair. “I almost think there’s no task I could set you that you couldn’t do.”

He was sitting in his straight-backed chair before the fire, and I was on the floor beside him, leaning my back against one of his legs. He patted me the way Burrich might pat a young bird dog that had done well, and then leaned forward to say softly, “But I’ve a challenge for you.”

“What is it?” I demanded eagerly.

“It won’t be easy, even for one with as light a touch as yours,” he warned me.

“Try me!” I challenged him in return.

“Oh, in another month or two, perhaps, when you’ve had a bit more teaching. I’ve a game to teach you tonight, one that will sharpen your eye and your memory.” He reached into a pouch and drew out a handful of something. He opened his hand briefly in front of me: colored stones. The hand closed. “Were there any yellow ones?”

“Yes. Chade, what is the challenge?”

“How many?”

“Two that I could see. Chade, I bet I could do it now.”

“Could there have been more than two?”

“Possibly, if some were concealed completely under the top layer. I don’t think it likely. Chade, what is the challenge?”

He opened his bony old hand, stirred the stones with his long forefinger. “Right you were. Only two yellow ones. Shall we go again?”

“Chade, I can do it.”

“You think so, do you? Look again, here’s the stones. One, two, three, and gone again. Were there any red ones?”

“Yes. Chade, what is the task?”

“Were there more red ones than blue? To bring me something personal from the King’s night table.”


“Were there more red stones than blue ones?”

“No, I mean, what was the task?”

“Wrong, boy!” Chade announced it merrily. He opened his fist. “See, three red and three blue. Exactly the same. You’ll have to look quicker than that if you’re to meet my challenge.”

“And seven green. I knew that, Chade. But…you want me to steal from the King?” I still couldn’t believe I had heard it.

“Not steal, just borrow. As you did Mistress Hasty’s shears. There’s no harm in a prank like that, is there?”

“None except that I’d be whipped if I were caught. Or worse.”

“And you’re afraid you’d be caught. See, I told you it had best wait a month or two, until your skills were better.”

“It’s not the punishment. It’s that if I were caught…the King and I…we made a bargain….” My words dwindled away. I stared at him in confusion. Chade’s instruction was a part of the bargain Shrewd and I had made. Each time we met, before he began instructing me, he formally reminded me of that bargain. I had given to Chade as well as the King my word that I would be loyal. Surely he could see that if I acted against the King, I’d be breaking my part of the bargain.

“It’s a game, boy,” Chade said patiently. “That’s all. Just a bit of mischief. It’s not really so serious as you seem to think it. The only reason I’m choosing it as a task is that the King’s room and his things are so closely watched. Anyone can make off with a seamstress’s shears. We’re talking about a real bit of stealth now, to enter the King’s own chambers and take something that belongs to him. If you could do that, I’d believe I’d spent my time well in teaching you. I’d feel you appreciated what I’d taught you.”

“You know I appreciate what you teach me,” I said quickly. That wasn’t it at all. Chade seemed to be completely missing my point. “I’d feel…disloyal. Like I was using what you’d taught me to trick the King. Almost as if I were laughing at him.”

“Ah!” Chade leaned back in his chair, a smile on his face. “Don’t let that bother you, boy. King Shrewd can appreciate a good jest when he’s shown one. Whatever you take, I’ll return myself to him. It will be a sign to him of how well I’ve taught you and how well you’ve learned. Take something simple if it worries you so; it needn’t be the crown off his head or the ring from his finger! Just his hairbrush, or any bit of paper that’s about—even his glove or belt would do. Nothing of any great value. Just a token.”

I thought I should pause to think, but I knew I didn’t need to. “I can’t do it. I mean, I won’t do it. Not from King Shrewd. Name any other, anyone else’s room, and I’ll do it. Remember when I took Regal’s scroll? You’ll see, I can creep in anywhere and—”

“Boy?” Chade’s voice came slowly, puzzled. “Don’t you trust me? I tell you it’s all right. It’s just a challenge we’re talking about, not high treason. And this time, if you’re caught, I promise I’ll step right in and explain it all. You won’t be punished.”

“That’s not it,” I said frantically. I could sense Chade’s growing puzzlement over my refusal. I scrabbled within myself to find a way to explain to him. “I promised to be loyal to Shrewd. And this—”

“There’s nothing disloyal about this!” Chade snapped. I looked up to see angry glints in his eyes. Startled, I drew back from him. I’d never seen him glare so. “What are you saying, boy? That I’m asking you to betray your king? Don’t be an idiot. This is just a simple little test, my way of measuring you and showing Shrewd himself what you’ve learned, and you balk at it. And try to cover your cowardice by prattling about loyalty. Boy, you shame me. I thought you had more backbone than this, or I’d never have begun teaching you.”

“Chade!” I began in horror. His words had left me reeling. He pulled away from me, and I felt my small world rocking around me as his voice went on coldly.

“Best you get back to your bed, little boy. Think exactly how you’ve insulted me tonight. To insinuate I’d somehow be disloyal to our king. Crawl down the stairs, you little craven. And the next time I summon you…Hah, if I summon you again, come prepared to obey me. Or don’t come at all. Now go.”

Never had Chade spoken to me so before. I could not recall that he had even raised his voice to me. I stared, almost without comprehension, at the thin pock-scarred arm that protruded from the sleeve of his robe, at the long finger that pointed so disdainfully toward the door and the stairs. As I rose I felt physically sick. I reeled, and had to catch hold of a chair as I passed. But I went, doing as he told me, unable to think of anything else to do. Chade, who had become the central pillar of my world, who had made me believe I was something of value, was taking it all away. Not just his approval, but our time together, my sense that I was going to be something in my lifetime.

I stumbled and staggered down the stairs. Never had they seemed so long or so cold. The bottom door grated shut behind me, and I was left in total darkness. I groped my way to my bed, but my blankets could not warm me, nor did I find any trace of sleep that night. I tossed in agony. The worst part was that I could find no indecision in myself. I could not do the thing Chade asked of me. Therefore, I would lose him. Without his instruction, I would be of no value to the King. But that was not the agony. The agony was simply the loss of Chade from my life. I could not remember how I had managed before when I had been so alone. To return to the drudgery of living day to day, going from task to task seemed impossible.

I tried desperately to think of something to do. But there seemed no answer. I could go to Shrewd himself, show my pin and be admitted, and tell him of my dilemma. But what would he say? Would he see me as a silly little boy? Would he say I should have obeyed Chade? Worse, would he say I was right to disobey Chade and be angry with Chade? These were very difficult questions for a boy’s mind, and I found no answers that helped me.

When morning finally came, I dragged myself from my bed and reported to Burrich as usual. I went about my tasks in a gray listlessness that first brought me scoldings and then an inquiry as to the state of my belly. I told him simply that I had not slept well, and he let me off without the threatened tonic. I did no better at weapons. My state of distraction was such that I let a much younger boy deliver a stout clout to my skull. Hod scolded us both for recklessness and told me to sit down for a bit.

My head was pounding and my legs were shaky when I returned to the keep. I went to my room, for I had no stomach for the noon meal or the loud conversations that went with it. I lay on my bed, intending to close my eyes for just a moment, but fell into a deep sleep. I awoke halfway through the afternoon and thought of the scoldings I would face for missing my afternoon lessons. But it wasn’t enough to rouse me and I dropped off, only to be awakened at suppertime by a serving girl who had come to inquire after me at Burrich’s behest. I staved her off by telling her I had a sour gut and was going to fast until it cleared. After she left, I drowsed but did not sleep. I couldn’t. Night deepened in my unlit room, and I heard the rest of the keep go off to rest. In darkness and stillness, I lay waiting for a summons I would not dare answer. What if the door opened? I could not go to Chade, for I could not obey him. Which would be worse: if he did not summon me, or if he opened the door for me and I dared not go? I tormented myself from rock to stone, and in the gray creeping of morning I had the answer. He hadn’t even bothered to call for me.

Even now, I do not like to recall the next few days. I hunched through them, so sick at heart that I could not properly eat or rest. I could not focus my mind on any task and took the rebukes that my teachers gave me with bleak acceptance. I acquired a headache that never ceased, and my stomach stayed so clenched on itself that food held no interest for me. The very thought of eating made me weary. Burrich put up with it for two days before he cornered me and forced down me both a worming draft and a blood tonic. The combination made me vomit up what little I’d eaten that day. He made me wash out my mouth with plum wine afterward, and to this day I cannot drink plum wine without gagging. Then, to my weary amazement, he dragged me up the stairs to his loft and gruffly ordered me to rest there for the day. When evening came, he chivied me up to the keep, and under his watchful eye I was forced to consume a watery bowl of soup and a hunk of bread. He would have taken me back to his loft again had I not insisted that I wanted my own bed. In reality, I had to be in my room. I had to know whether Chade at least tried to call me, whether I could go or not. Through another sleepless night, I stared in blackness at a darker corner of my room.

But he didn’t summon me.

Morning grayed my window. I rolled over and kept to my bed. The depth of bleakness that settled over me was too solid for me to fight. All of my possible choices led to gray ends. I could not face the futility of getting out of bed. A headachy sort of near sleep claimed me. Any sound seemed too loud, and I was either too hot or too cold no matter how I fussed my covers. I closed my eyes, but even my dreams were bright and annoying. Arguing voices, as loud as if they were in the bed with me, and all the more frustrating because it sounded like one man arguing with himself and taking both sides. “Break him like you broke the other one!” he’d mutter angrily. “You and your stupid tests!” and then: “Can’t be too careful. Can’t put your trust in just anyone. Blood will tell. Test his mettle, that’s all.” “Metal! You want a brainless blade, go hammer it out yourself. Beat it flat.” And more quietly: “I’ve got no heart for this. I’ll not be used again. If you wanted to test my temper, you’ve done it.” Then: “Don’t talk to me about blood and family. Remember who I am to you! It isn’t his loyalty she’s worrying about, or mine.”

The angry voices broke up, merged, became another argument, this one shriller. I cracked open my eyelids. My chamber had become the scene of a brief battle. I woke to a spirited argument between Burrich and Mistress Hasty as to whose jurisdiction I fell under. She had a wicker basket, from which protruded the necks of several bottles. The scents of mustard in a plaster and chamomile wafted over me so strongly that I wanted to retch. Burrich stood stoically between her and my bed. His arms were crossed on his chest and Vixen sat at his feet. Mistress Hasty’s words rattled in my head like pebbles. “In the keep”; “those clean linens”; “know about boys”; “that smelly dog.” I don’t recall that Burrich said a word. He just stood there so solidly that I could feel him with my eyes closed.

Later he was gone, but Vixen was on the bed, not at my feet, but beside me, panting heavily but refusing to abandon me for the cooler floor. I opened my eyes again, still later, to early twilight. Burrich had tugged free my pillow, shook it a bit, and was awkwardly stuffing it back under my head, cool side up. He then sat down heavily on the bed.

He cleared his throat. “Fitz, there’s nothing the matter with you that I’ve ever seen before. At least, whatever’s the matter with you isn’t in your guts or your blood. If you were a bit older, I’d suspect you had woman problems. You act like a soldier on a three-day drunk, but without the wine. Boy, what’s the matter with you?”

He looked down on me with sincere worry. It was the same look he wore when he was afraid a mare was going to miscarry, or when hunters brought back dogs that boars had gotten to. It reached me, and without meaning to, I quested out toward him. As always, the wall was there, but Vixen whined lightly and put her muzzle against my cheek. I tried to express what was inside me without betraying Chade. “I’m just so alone now,” I heard myself say, and even to me it sounded like a feeble complaint.

“Alone?” Burrich’s brows knit. “Fitz, I’m right here. How can you say you’re alone?”

And there the conversation ended, with both of us looking at one another and neither understanding at all. Later he brought me food, but didn’t insist I eat it. And he left Vixen with me for the night. A part of me wondered how she would react if the door opened, but a larger part of me knew I didn’t have to worry. That door would never open again.

Morning came again. And Vixen nosed at me and whined to go out. Too broken to care if Burrich caught me, I quested toward her. Hungry and thirsty and her bladder was about to burst. And her discomfort was suddenly my own. I dragged on a tunic and took her down the stairs and outside, and then back to the kitchen to eat. Cook was more pleased to see me than I had imagined anyone could be. Vixen was given a generous bowl of last night’s stew, while Cook insisted on fixing me six rashers of thick-cut bacon on the warm crust of the day’s first baking of bread. Vixen’s keen nose and sharp appetite sparked my own senses, and I found myself eating, not with my normal appetite but with a young creature’s sensory appreciation for food.

From there she led me to the stables, and though I pulled my mind back from her before we went inside, I felt somewhat rejuvenated from the contact. Burrich straightened up from some task as I came in, looked me over, glanced at Vixen, grunted wryly to himself, and then handed me a suckle bottle and wick. “There isn’t much in a man’s head,” he told me, “that can’t be cured by working and taking care of something else. The rat dog whelped a few days ago, and there’s one pup too weak to compete with the others. See if you can keep him alive today.”

It was an ugly little pup, pink skin showing through his brindle fur. His eyes were shut tight still, and the extra skin he’d use up as he grew was piled atop his muzzle. His skinny little tail looked just like a rat’s, so that I wondered his mother didn’t worry her own pups to death just for the resemblance’s sake. He was weak and passive, but I bothered him with the warm milk and wicking until he sucked a little, and got enough all over him that his mother was inspired to lick and nuzzle him. I took one of his stronger sisters off her teat and plugged him into her place. Her little belly was round and full anyway; she had only been sucking for the sake of obstinacy. She was going to be white with a black spot over one eye. She caught my little finger and suckled at it, and already I could feel the immense strength those jaws would someday hold. Burrich had told me stories about rat dogs that would latch onto a bull’s nose and hang there no matter what the bull did. He had no use for men that would teach a dog to do so, but could not contain his respect for the courage of a dog that would take on a bull. Our rat dogs were kept for ratting and taken on regular patrols of the corncribs and grain barns.

I spent the whole morning there and left at noon with the gratification of seeing the pup’s small belly round and tight with milk. The afternoon was spent mucking stalls. Burrich kept me at it, adding another chore as soon as I completed one, with no time for me to do anything but work. He didn’t talk with me or ask me questions, but he always seemed to be working but a dozen paces away. It was as if he had taken my complaint about being alone quite literally and was resolved to be where I could see him. I wound up my day back with my puppy, who was substantially stronger than he had been that morning. I cradled him against my chest and he crept up under my chin, his blunt little muzzle questing there for milk. It tickled. I pulled him down and looked at him. He was going to have a pink nose. Men said the rat dogs with the pink noses were the most savage ones when they fought. But his little mind now was only a muzzy warmth of security and milk want and affection for my smell. I wrapped him in my protection of him, praised him for his new strength. He wiggled in my fingers. And Burrich leaned over the side of the stall and rapped me on the head with his knuckles, bringing twin yelps from the pup and me.

“Enough of that,” he warned me sternly. “That’s not a thing for a man to do. And it won’t solve whatever is chewing on your soul. Give the pup back to his mother, now.”

So I did, but reluctantly, and not at all sure that Burrich was right that bonding with a puppy wouldn’t solve anything. I longed for his warm little world of straw and siblings and milk and mother. At that moment I could imagine no better one.

Then Burrich and I went up to eat. He took me into the soldiers’ mess, where manners were whatever you had and no one demanded talk. It was comforting to be casually ignored, to have food passed over my head with no one being solicitous of me. Burrich saw that I ate, though, and then afterward we sat outside beside the kitchen’s back door and drank. I’d had ale and beer and wine before, but I had never drunk in the purposeful way that Burrich now showed me. When Cook dared to come out and scold him for giving strong spirits to a mere boy, he gave her one of his quiet stares that reminded me of the first night I had met him, when he’d faced down a whole room of soldiers over Chivalry’s good name. And she left.

He walked me up to my room himself, dragged my tunic off over my head as I stood unsteadily beside my bed, and then casually tumbled me into the bed and tossed a blanket over me. “Now you’ll sleep,” he informed me in a thick voice. “And tomorrow we’ll do the same again. And again. Until one day you get up and find out that whatever it was didn’t kill you after all.”

He blew out my candle and left. My head reeled and my body ached from the day’s work. But I still didn’t sleep. What I found myself doing was crying. The drink had loosened whatever knot held my control, and I wept. Not quietly. I sobbed, and hiccuped and then wailed with my jaw shaking. My throat closed up, my nose ran, and I cried so hard I felt I couldn’t breathe. I think I cried every tear I had never shed since the day my grandfather forced my mother to abandon me. “Mere!” I heard myself call out, and suddenly there were arms around me, holding me tight.

Chade held me and rocked me as if I were a much younger child. Even in the darkness I knew those bony arms and the herb-and-dust smell of him. Disbelieving, I clung to him and cried until I was hoarse, and my mouth so dry no sound would come at all. “You were right,” he said into my hair, quietly, calmingly. “You were right. I was asking you to do something wrong, and you were right to refuse it. You won’t be tested that way again. Not by me.” And when I was finally still, he left me for a time, and then brought back to me a drink, lukewarm and almost tasteless but not water. He held the mug to my mouth and I drank it down without questions. Then I lay back so suddenly sleepy that I don’t even remember Chade leaving my room.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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