Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
Sherrim shook her head, mute with fear, but Jemminor frowned thoughtfully. I could see him adding columns in his head.
"Master Claighan," I said quietly. "You don't have to do this—"
"I do." He said the words without glancing at me, and there was a cruel finality in them that set my blood cold.
"I've already said I'll go," I tried again, talking to Sherrim and Jemminor now. "I'm sorry. I'm not staying."
"Hush," the wizard said. "We are discussing important matters."
Sherrim glanced up to meet my eyes across the table. She licked her lips, and then let her gaze fall to her lap again. Jemminor stretched his arms behind him, reaching up high and flexing muscles large from hard work in the fields. Then he tucked his hands behind his head and fixed the wizard with a shining gaze.
"I figure he's worth four silver vints a week."
Sherrim made a noise. A tiny little squeak. It was the sound of her breath escaping her. Her shoulders fell, her lips pressed tight together, and she laid a desperate hand on her husband's. He didn't notice. His eyes were all on the wizard's purse.
Claighan's eyebrows went up in surprise that couldn't have been feigned. "Four vints?" he asked incredulously. "A reliable field hand might be worth one vint, anywhere in the kingdom."
"And it's as I said," Jemminor said, spreading his hands. "The boy is more than reliable. He's talented and smart and dedicated. He's strong and young and focused. He's worth four vints a week."
"Surely two would be more reasonable," Claighan tried, but Jemminor cut him off.
"Four vints if he's worth a penny."
Claighan held Jemminor's gaze for some time. "Just so?" he asked.
The wizard nodded slowly, untying the strings of his purse with a studied care and then reaching one of his long, bony fingers into the satin bag to stir the coins within. "That does force me to ask one more question, of course." He said it almost offhand, but Sherrim nodded with a terrible certainty. Claighan's mouth twitched in a sad smile in her direction. "How much do you pay him?"
I blinked at the question. I hadn't really thought of it when the goodman named his price. As Claighan said, any good field hand might hope to earn one silver vint a week. But I was different. I had nothing. They didn't pay me in king's silver; they gave me a room and meals. They gave me clothes and food.
Neither of them spoke. Sherrim looked defeated and Jemminor flustered, but neither of them provided an answer. I looked back and forth between them, waiting for someone to speak up, and then I opened my mouth to speak for them.
Claighan hit me with a look of such dark fury that the words died in my throat. Then he spoke them for me.
"Room and board," he said. He looked me over. "And rags. And a cast-off, ruined old sword when you could have bought him a perfectly good one for one week's wages. In this political climate." His lips twisted in distaste at that last.
I looked down at my hands. The sword had been my own. But they had not been cruel masters and I had to speak in their defense.
"Claighan, don't. They gave me a home—"
"They took far more than they ever gave you."
I shook my head. "They have been kind. I like walking in the fields."
"And Jemminor likes the profit your efforts have made him."
Jemminor winced at that, despite the frustration suddenly hot in his eyes, and I realized with a shock it must be true. I shook my head.
"It doesn't matter," I said.
"It matters," Claighan said. "Watch his eyes. Watch how his lady tries to hide from the truth she knows. Think, boy! Think how a landowner like this, overextended, might value the help of a sturdy young man. One who never asks for his wages. One who'll work without rest. One worth more than a dozen merchants' sons all by himself."
Sherrim flinched at every accusation, as though he were striking her. Jemm's fury boiled, and I saw behind it shame. Misery. I shook my head again.
"It doesn't matter!" I shouted now, cutting him off to protect them. My breath came hot and fast. "I don't care what I might be worth. They aren't monsters. This life has been better to me than any I have ever known."
"That doesn't satisfy me!" Claighan roared, unleashing on me the anger he had so carefully concealed from Jemminor.
I flinched away from him, and he winced. He pressed his eyes tight closed, then drew himself to his feet. He looked down on me for a moment, hovering on the edge of a deep regret, and then turned to Jemminor and Sherrim with all the deep, quiet authority I had felt in my first moment with him.
"I am taking the boy away," he said. His pronouncement brooked no argument, and none was given. Sherrim nodded and Jemm just scowled across the table. Claighan scrubbed both his hands across his face, looking deeply tired, then shook his head. He met Sherrim's eyes. "Thank you for your hospitality. It was a fine dinner. I regret that I cannot stay for dessert."
She nodded, dumb, and he turned to me. "We should leave now, Daven. It is a long walk to the capitol. How long will it take you to pack your belongings?"
"Only a moment, Claighan. I have very few things." Sherrim sighed at that, and I felt a blush burn in my cheeks, but the wizard only nodded.
"Fetch them. I will wait for you in the sitting room."
I darted downstairs and tossed my shirts—all dirty now—into a weathered leather bag that I had brought with me from Chantire. Other than that there was only my work knife and my ragged copy of an outdated dueling text. I looked around for something else I had gained in my years in Sachaerrich, but those were all my belongings. I couldn't avoid looking at the Green Eagle's broadsword, sheathed on the foot of my bed. I thought about leaving it there. I thought about trying to explain to Sherrim, but I couldn't even imagine what I would say.
I was going to the capitol. I could leave it with the guards there. I nodded once to myself, scooped up the belt, and crammed it into the long leather bag. Then I pulled its drawstrings tight, slung the pack over one shoulder, and headed upstairs.
Sherrim met me just outside the sitting room. She whispered so Claighan would not hear her as she pressed a small leather purse into my hands, "This is for the work you've done for us, Daven."
I shook my head. "No, ma'am, there's no need. Thank you, but—"
She shook her head fiercely, cutting me off. "They are wages well earned. He was not wrong about that. But please do not think poorly of us. Do not let him convince you we misused you."
"You were always kind to me, ma'am, and the master provided a home for me when no one else would have. I won't forget that." I stood for a moment, considered hugging her, but finally decided against it. "Thank you, Sherrim. Goodbye."
"Goodbye, Daven." She slipped off down the hall as I stepped through the door into the sitting room. Claighan looked at me with one eyebrow raised.
"I am glad that relationship, at least, could end well. Cherish the memories more than the silver, boy. I fear you will be alone for a while."
I wanted to snap at him. I wanted to point out that during one dinner he had tarnished every memory I'd had. I wanted to send him away without me.
But more than that, I wanted to see the world. I wanted to find my place—not just one where I was accepted, but one where I belonged. For a long time I'd hoped that would be the Royal Guard, but perhaps the old wizard was right. Perhaps it could be the Academy instead. It couldn't be any worse than I'd survived before anyway. I forced myself to shrug, not a care in the world. "I can handle alone," I said. "Let's go."
"Very well. We take the King's Way to Sariano. We should be no more than three days on the road, if we move quickly." In the quiet darkness we slipped out of the front door. A light rain began as we walked the neat path across the manor lawn, and by the time we turned onto the road we were drenched. Claighan's voice came to me through the cold, wet night. "Smile, Daven. You're beginning a new life."
The rain poured down throughout the night until my sodden cloak dragged at my shoulders and an icy stream of water flowed down my back to fill my leather boots. Claighan ignored the rain, walking with a brisk step and the hint of a frown tugging at his lips. His eyes were on something far off, and he mumbled to himself as he walked.
Trying to ignore the bitter downpour, I watched him as he walked and saw his distraction growing with every mile, saw his concern and frustration building. At one point he stopped and whirled with fear in his eyes, but when they fell on me, he smiled.
"Ah. Daven. You are there. Good."
Without another word, he turned back east. I followed.
Long before morning the heavy downpour dwindled, though rain still fell in a heavy, chilly mist. I shrugged out of my cloak and wrung it out as well as I could, then flung it back around my shoulders and jogged a few steps to catch up with the wizard.
"Claighan." He didn't respond, so I tugged at his sleeve. "Master Claighan! Stop."
He turned to me, but it was a moment before he seemed to see me, and then he shook his head. "What? Oh, Daven. Oh, dear me. I'm sorry, boy. I've been...distracted."
I frowned at him. "You have. We've been walking all night. We must've made twelve miles. Do you mean to walk straight to the capitol?"
"If we can, boy. If we can."
I shook my head. "Don't you think we should stop? For a rest?" I looked away, a blush burning softly in my cheeks, but out of concern for him I pressed on. "Surely you must be tired."
He shook his head. "I have no time to be tired. The world is moving against us." He eyed me up and down, concerned. "But perhaps I ask too much of you. Are
I shook my head. "No," I said, and it was almost the truth. "Just a bit cold. But...." I didn't dare say it.
A smile touched his eyes, and he turned and started down the road again. "But I'm just an old man." He laughed, and it was a sound of satisfaction. "Since yesterday's sunrise you've worked a full day in the fields, fought a Green Eagle to the ground, walked away from the only home you've ever known, and trudged—what was it? Twelve miles through a downpour. And you're worried about
I nodded. He snorted. "You're a very physical one. Strong. That'll be a problem. Not unanticipated, but a problem."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He shrugged. "It's complicated. I'll explain more when we get to Souport."
"What's at Souport?"
"Boats," he said. "More importantly, I've arranged a demonstration that will help you understand. In the meantime, you must just trust me. Come on." He turned back to the east. "Let's get there."
"No." I stopped, and he walked several paces before he noticed and turned back to me. I glared at him. "I need you to tell me something."
"What's that?" He sounded impatient, and stamped his foot unconsciously.
"Why were you so cruel to Jemminor?"
"What looks like cruelty can often be a kindness," he said with a carefully cryptic air. He turned his back on me and started down the road again, but I did not budge.
"That's not good enough," I said, and my voice sounded loud through the patter of cold rain. "Tell me why."
Claighan turned back to me again. He held my eyes for a moment, and then said with gravity, "He is a small man who has gotten very good at pretending to be something better."
I shook my head. "That's not it either." Claighan opened his mouth to argue, to hurry me on down the road, but I stepped closer. "It was something to do with me."
He narrowed his eyes. And then he came a step back to me, searching in my eyes. Instead of answering, he said, "What would it have to do with you?"
"I don't know," I said, giving him half a shrug. "There was something you wanted me to see. Perhaps you just wanted to make sure I didn't go back, that I would see them for the monsters they were, but you didn't...." He shook his head in a slow no, and I trailed off. He held my eyes for a moment, then jerked his head on down the road. After a moment I nodded and we started walking again.
"It wasn't that," he said.
I nodded. "Then why?"
"You were right. Surprisingly right. There was something I wanted you to see."
I thought for a moment, replaying last night's events in my head. "Sherrim? Something about—"
He shook his head. "No. I have no interest in Sherrim. Or Jemminor."
"Me? You didn't show me anything about me! It was all Jemm's misdeeds. Jemm's mistreatment. Jemm's greed."
He frowned, just the corner of his mouth turned down, but I felt his disappointment. I fell silent, mind racing. After a while I sighed. "I'm sorry. I don't know. I can't see the subtlety to it because it was all so strange. I had never considered them like that. Never even considered how I fit into it."
Just like that his frown disappeared, and his eyes glittered. He shook a finger at me. "Precisely," he said.
I closed my eyes, moving automatically at his side. "I don't understand."
"It is what we spoke of before. You have lived too much of your life in the context of your past. You accepted your lot on Jemminor's farm because it was better than what you had experienced before. Not because it was as good as you