Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
Claighan nodded, "Yes, please arrange a plate for me. Run ahead." He spoke the words with a casual air of command and Wen obeyed, darting up the path to the manor. The wizard followed at a more stately pace.
I bit my tongue. He had been kind to me, inexplicably so, but a wizard could demand respect from any lord in the king's lands. He certainly had the authority to talk down to a country steward. Still, he seemed to sense my disapproval, and he shot me a brief look. "I believe things will go better for us if we take things very seriously from here on out."
"What do you mean? Jemminor is a kind man. We won't have any problems with him."
"People behave differently when wizards are around." He caught my shoulder and I stopped, still some small distance from the house. An orange square of light fell across the marbled steps as Wen threw open the door. Claighan watched until the door was shut again. "I need to be certain you will follow me, Daven, before I speak to this man, but I fear I do not have time to explain everything to you. This I can say: I would take you to the Academy to learn wizardry with some of the nation's brightest young men, and with the full support of the king behind you. Would you give up your life here for that?"
"I already told you I would."
"So you did. So you did. Now tell me again."
I frowned and said, "I will."
Before I could say any more he cut me off, nodding. "Very well, word of my arrival should have reached your master by now." I started to step off the path, but he caught my arm. "No Daven, tonight you enter by the front door. Come."
We walked to the end of the path and up three short steps, where Wen stood once more waiting for us. He threw the door open then slammed it shut when we were through. I grimaced at the stain my muddy boots left on the thick carpet in the entrance. The air in the manor was warm after the night chill, and the smell of roasting lamb roused my empty stomach. We stood alone in the hall.
After a moment's wait the sound of heavy, hurried footsteps preceded Jemminor into the little foyer. The look on his face was terrible, foreign. His eyes shone with suspicion, his lips pursed in anger. He stood at the end of the hall, looming over us both and glaring from under his brows. He jabbed a finger at the wizard. "You are Claighan?"
"You've no business here in Sachaerrich! All of us are good folk. All of us." His eyes darted to me, then back to the wizard's face. Still Claighan said nothing.
"I've done no wrong. No one in this house has. The boy," he faltered for a moment, bit his lip and then resumed with a bit less steam, "the boy has committed no offense since he left the City. If he's done anything else...." Again he glanced at me, again it stopped him for a moment. "Surely you can't hold him accountable for something done so long ago!"
Claighan stepped forward, his staff ringing as it struck the wooden floor. Jemminor fell back before him and retreated two steps before he knew what he was doing. Then he stopped, tried to draw himself up again, but somehow the wizard's authority dwarfed him. "Jemminor," Claighan called, and his voice echoed off the walls of the little foyer. "I have come on the business of the Crown. Would you defy that authority?"
At first his mouth worked soundlessly, but finally he said, "No. No, I'm loyal to the king—"
"That is good to know. I am here for the king, for the country, and I would hate to think you would oppose me."
Jemminor grunted. "We have done no wrong, wizard." I was amazed at the change in his attitude, mumbling now the same words he had shouted moments ago. "We have none of us done any wrong."
Claighan seemed to grow impatient. "And I have brought no accusations, Goodman. I have requested a dinner. Have you a place?"
"Excellent. Go see to the table and send your wife that I may speak with her."
"She has done no—"
"I understand." His eyes flashed with impatience that belied the calm in his voice. "I only wish to introduce myself." Jemminor nodded then turned and scurried off. I stood astonished.
"Claighan...why was Jemm so afraid?"
"Wizards are seldom popular where the common man gains power, Daven. I do not wholly understand why, but I wholly regret it. There are those that see us as tyrants and terrorists, and men like your Jemminor are the first of this sort."
"Is he wrong?"
He looked at me, then returned to his casual observation of the room. "That is a shrewd question, Daven. And a dangerous one. I invite you to speak with me as freely as you would—my own life hangs on your education—but be careful in your treatment of the other Masters. As much as possible you should strive to be respectful and go unseen."
I looked around at the empty little room, trying to see what caught his interest, but finally decided he was focusing on other things. His answer tickled my mind—for one, it was not an answer at all. It was also ominous. I was still mulling his words when Lady Sherrim swept into the room, her silk slippers noiseless on the hard floors.
"Greetings, Master Claighan!" She curtsied politely, her finest dress whispering as she dipped. "I am honored to have you in my home. Please, please, come into the sitting room while dinner is prepared. Rest, and tell me of news at Court." The wizard smiled to himself before bowing slightly. He murmured some answering pleasantry and slipped past her into the sitting room.
I stepped quickly forward and caught Sherrim's arm. She threw a surprised glance at me, and I ducked my head, suddenly sheepish. "Sorry, ma'am." My voice was a whisper, and she answered in kind.
"It's fine, Daven. Just speak quickly. What do you need?"
"You...you were so proper! I've never seen you—" I blushed, and squeezed my eyes shut. "I'm sorry. I'm just surprised at your reaction. And Jemm's."
She smiled, but her eyes were sad. "I have more experience with such men than he does. And I heard how things went for Jemminor. I could not afford to imitate him." Claighan took a seat in the next room, settling his staff against the wall next to him, and the sound of it drew Sherrim's attention. She went on hurriedly. "We behave as we must in these situations, Daven. I fear we will lose you no matter what I do."
I started to answer, to reassure her, but she motioned me to silence and hurried into the room where Claighan waited. I hesitated in the doorway, wondering whether the state of my clothes or my presence in the sitting room were the more pressing demand and finally let my fear decide for me. I had no desire to see the proud Lady Sherrim bowing and scraping for some wizard, no matter what he had offered me.
I darted downstairs to my room to change into some cleaner clothes. My room was cold and damp, as always, and I took several long, slow breaths of the cool air to clear my head. Then I opened my eyes and caught an impression of how I must look. I was shivering, excitement and fear wrestling each other inside me. I still had the sword belt clutched against my chest, and when I realized that I dropped it like a poisonous snake. It landed on the straw pallet I used for a bed, and I took a long step back. No matter what the wizard said, that was far too fine a blade for a boy like me to own, and the soldier—Othin—was not one to forgive a theft like that.
I could hardly give it back to him, though. I turned my back on it, trying to forget it while I changed quickly into cleaner clothes. Then, without glancing back, I left my little room and rushed upstairs. I stepped into the sitting room just as Jemminor entered from the other door.
"Dinner is ready. Please join us in the dining room."
Sherrim offered a nervous smile as she rose and brushed some nothing from her skirt. Claighan leaned heavily on his staff as he rose to his feet, then turned a gracious smile to Jemminor and Sherrim. "It smells wonderful. Let's see what your cook can do." He swept out of the room, all grandeur, and the master and mistress were only left to follow, a bit dazed.
In the dining room, Claighan waved me to a seat on his right. I sank down into the cushioned chair before the elaborately inlaid table where I'd only eaten one or two meals in all the years I'd worked here. Two servants entered, the arms of both full of fine plates and silverware, which they placed carefully around the table while darting curious glances at me. I smiled back and shrugged, but they averted their eyes as though I were Jemm or one of his guests.
Claighan tasted the food placed before him, sampling each piece delicately, then took a slow sip of the red wine. Then he sat back and fixed his gaze on Jemm. "Master Jemminor, this is an elaborate dinner and a quite impressive manor." His tone was friendly, but his eyes were dark. "I have seen few as extravagant outside the City."
The muscles on Jemm's jaw clenched, but he made a polite, "Thank you." He hid his nervousness in his wine glass, taking a deep draught and waving to the servant to refill it.
Claighan watched Jemm take another long drink, then the wizard turned his head away to study a tapestry hanging on the wall. Almost offhand he said, "By the looks of it you own some rather extensive fields as well. I've heard rumors that in certain seasons you employ nearly every son of this town."
Jemminor stared at the wizard's turned head. He wore undisguised suspicion and anger on his face, and it didn't lesson when his eyes cut briefly to me. "I don't take your meaning," Jemminor said at last.
The wizard turned back and quirked an eyebrow at him. "My meaning? I only offer you my compliments. Your property is flourishing."
"Just so," Jemminor said, his eyes narrow now. He looked over to Sherrim at his right hand, but she did not look up. She kept her sharp eyes fixed on her plate, though I could tell by the tilt of her head that she was listening intently. Her knuckles were white around her grip on a delicate silver fork.
The men didn't seem to notice. Jemminor took a deep drink of his wine then licked his lips. He turned his attention back to the wizard. "Your compliments are well and good, but you must forgive my curiosity. Why have you come here?"
"Oh, Jemm!" Sherrim said, chastising, but it was a tiny sound. She raised a hand to his shoulder and went on without raising her voice. "He is our guest."
Claighan smiled across to her and shook his head. "It is no matter. Goodman Jemminor's hospitality and grace are spoken of throughout Terrailles. He has done nothing but live up to that reputation."
Sherrim went pale and her shoulders fell, but Jemminor heard the wizard's words as a compliment. He nodded to Sherrim as though vindicated then turned all his attention back to the wizard. "Thank you. I know there must be more to your visit. I'm sure you didn't come here just to discuss my field hands."
The corners of Claighan's mouth quirked up as his only answer, but Jemminor caught on quickly. He sucked in a deep breath, let it out, and then his gaze moved to hang on me. "Just so," he said. "Just so."
"I do have some interest in Daven's fortune," Claighan said. "I found him out upon the hill, where he teaches the other village boys to fight."
"Oh, yes. Yes. He's handy with a sword, this one. Sharp as they come, and...and a good teacher, too," Jemminor said. "So I hear, anyway. I figure there's no harm in it." He cast a sidelong glance at Claighan, testing, and the wizard only nodded.
"Of course not," he said. "Boys will be boys."
"Just so," Jemminor said, and I saw a smile threatening now. His eyes shone with more than just the wine. "He, uh...he never misses a day's work, either. Don't misunderstand about the swordplay. It's good exercise, good training, but the boy knows how to put in a full day's work first."
"And how did he come to be in your employ?" Claighan said. He gave the question no real weight, all his attention apparently on his knife and fork as he cut a slice of the newly-served beef, but Sherrim's head lifted enough for her to throw a furrowed gaze at the wizard.
Jemminor was paying no more attention than the wizard now. He helped himself to a thick cut of roast. "The boy's been with us four years now. Five?" He frowned and looked over to Sherrim. She nodded, and Jemminor repeated the gesture. "Five years. He came into town one morning, tired and dirty and smelling like the dungheap, but Sherrim told me, 'You give this boy work to do,' and how could I say no to her?"
He spared a smile for her. She raised her head then, and Claighan took the opportunity to catch her eye. She took a little breath and nodded. "He did. And Daven has worked for us since."
"So generous of you," Claighan said. "Has he been loyal?"
Jemminor spoke over his wife's answer, "Oh, yes! He's always done a full day's work for us, and always worked harder than any of the others, too!"
"Excellent! Good to hear." Claighan leaned forward, watching Jemminor's face closely. Baiting him. "I'm going to need a hard worker."
Jemm scowled at that. "Oh, well, as to that...I can hardly just let you take him away."
Sherrim rested a hand on the back of his, trying to catch his attention. "Jemminor," she whispered, "he is a wizard."
Jemm shook her hand away and shrugged one shoulder. He met Claighan's eyes levelly. "Even wizards must respect property, Sherrim. He can't just come around taking good hands—"
"He can," Claighan said calmly, his gaze still locked on Jemminor's face. "At his sole discretion." He paused, as if considering a different tack, and then reached for a purse on his belt. "But for the sake of argument, let's pretend the wizard were willing to pay. How much is Daven worth to you?"