Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
I would have laughed at that if not for the fear in my heart. Every crossing corridor seemed to boast a guard, every deep-set doorway, and the guards all wore the same beautiful, terrible uniform as the man I had so offended. Claighan and the steward bowed their heads together in conversation, making arrangements, but I could not spare a thought for them. I paid no attention to the fine, wide halls we walked down—to the expensive hangings on the walls or the exquisite portraits. I lost track of the path we took down huge arching hallways, up wide marble staircases, and past narrow windows looking out on manicured gardens.
Claighan stopped abruptly and I barely caught myself short of stumbling into him. He frowned at me and then shook his head. To the steward, he said, "Thank you for your assistance. You've been a great help. I will not forget it."
The steward ducked his head and disappeared down the hall. Claighan's attention was instantly all on me again. "I'm sorry, Daven. I know things have moved quite quickly, but within the hour that should all change. I have...opponents who would thwart us for no more reason than their own pride. But none would dare speak against you once you have the backing of the king."
I felt my eyes go wide. My stomach turned over. I realized my mouth was hanging open. I swallowed. "You want the
to sponsor me?"
He nodded hurriedly. "It is no small thing, but the need is great."
I shook my head. "That's why you thought I was afraid." My knees buckled, and I had to grab the wall to keep from falling. "I'm going to
to the king?"
Now Claighan's eyes went wide. "Wind and rain, no! No," he chuckled, but it sounded forced. "But you must be presented before him. Hold your tongue, bow as low as your joints will let you, and keep behind me. That is all I need of you."
I nodded slowly. I took a breath, and met his eyes. "And if he refuses?"
"He won't refuse," Claighan said, but his voice didn't carry the same certainty as the words. "He must not. But if it comes to that—if he cannot be convinced here and now—then we will have to find some patience." He swallowed nervously, and dropped his eyes. "I can find us rooms here in the palace, or at one of the manors on High Street. It will take some time. Weeks, likely." He grimaced. "And I'm sorry to say it won't be terribly exciting, but I can begin your teachings in some small way while I move the necessary pieces into place."
I fought not to smile. He offered me weeks of luxury and apologized for the inconvenience. I could tell the delay troubled him greatly, though, so I kept my expression stern and asked, "Why wait here? Why not move on to the Academy while you 'move pieces'?"
He didn't meet my eyes. "Without the king's backing it...it wouldn't be prudent to take you to the Academy."
I stared at him for a moment, and for a heartbeat he looked small and perhaps even nervous. Then I understood, and I felt the same. "Of course," I said. My voice sounded surprisingly cool. Insultingly so. But I could not force any warmth into it. "Because, as I said before, I do not
at the Academy."
Fire flared in Claighan's eyes. "There are some who see it that way," he said. "Are you so weak-willed as to agree with them?"
I turned to the wall, closed my eyes and let my forehead fall against the cool stone. "Life has taught me to respect my limitations, wizard. That is not weakness."
He sighed, and when he spoke I heard his disappointment. "So desperate for honor," he said. "So desperate for pride. And so determined to leave matters in the hands of those who would deprive you of it."
Anger flared hot in my chest. What could this wizard know of such things? I turned on him, but before I could speak I saw the determination in his eyes. And I understood. "You really mean it. Don't you?"
He frowned, just a slight crease between his brows. "Mean what?"
"You're doing all of this for my pride. Why? Why would a Master of the Academy and a confidant of the king care about the feelings of an orphaned shepherd?"
His eyes held mine. A fatherly smile tugged at his lips, but it didn't reach his eyes. He spoke soft and low. "I barely care about you at all, boy."
"But that first night you said it was to make amends—"
He shook his head. "No. You deserve amends, but I cannot make them. You deserved some touch of dignity, but the Green Eagle wouldn't give it. You deserved fair reward for your efforts, but Jemm never offered it."
"But why? Why do you care?"
"Because I need a decent swordsman still young enough to learn magic," he said, with a simple sincerity. "Because you have no ties to hold you back. And because until you learn to believe in your own authority, you will make a truly miserable student of magic." He took a long step back, and looked me up and down. "Wizards do not receive the respect they deserve, Daven. They
it, from man or from nature. That is what I have been showing you all along."
He nodded past me to a servant scurrying down the hall gripping the edge of a fine ceramic basin in one hand and the handle of a heavy pitcher in the other. "Get cleaned up, get dressed, and join me across the hall." He waved to another door. "And be quick about it. Time is of the essence."
With that he turned on his heel and swept across and through the door, leaving me alone. The servant hurried past me, shouldering through the door to my sitting room, and I followed him in. He set the basin on a tall, narrow table and poured steaming water that smelled very lightly of flowers. Then he laid out two small towels he'd carried tucked in his belt, and turned to me.
"Will you need anything else?"
The question was almost absurd. I needed...insight. Understanding. Patronage. Instead of answering, I stepped past him and sank down into one of the wide, deep chairs against the wall. I let my head fall back and closed my eyes.
What was I doing? What was I really hoping for here? That the king—the king of the Northlands, the Isle, and all of Southern Ardain—would smile upon me and sponsor me to the Academy of Wizardry? It was laughable. I was worse than nameless. A quick bath and a change of clothes would hardly change that.
I thought back on my last conversation with the wizard. I left a pleasant enough home without a thought, for just the promise of honor, but until just now I had never bothered to understand why. And he still hadn't said it outright, but there was much significance in something he'd said. "I barely care about you at all."
That...that I understood. That I could believe. And with that piece, I could understand more of what he'd said before. "A great threat approaches," he had said. "I would make a weapon of you." It wasn't
me. I was just a piece on the board, a pawn to be moved into place for another one of his schemes.
Perhaps that should have offended me. Perhaps it should have frightened me. It didn't. All my life I had wanted to be a soldier, and this was no worse a fate than that. And in exchange he had offered me a place of honor. He would teach me how to make my own honor.
I nodded, eyes still closed. I smiled. All I had to do was impress a king. I laughed, low and dark, but I had my instructions for that, too. Stay close and stay silent. I could do that well enough.
I heaved myself to my feet, suddenly feeling strong and sure. I was surprised to find the servant still standing just inside the door, watching me patiently. I glanced around the room and spotted the neatly-folded pile of clothes, checked that there was enough water in the basin, and turned back to him. "That will do nicely," I said. "Thank you."
He nodded once, mute, and left me there alone.
I stripped out of my filthy clothes. I washed my face first, then soaked one of the towels to scrub quickly at my body, and used the other to dry. I did it swiftly, but by the time I was done I felt clean and fresh and ready to face anything. And then I turned to the pile of new clothes.
A moment later a finely woven red cotton shirt hung almost to my knees over a pair of doeskin pants that fit almost as though tailored to me. I also found a pair of plain leather boots much like mine, but these were new and fresh as mine had never been. I considered the already bulging pack I'd slung carelessly into a chair and rejected any thought of adding my filthy clothes to it. Instead I left them there, piled neatly on the floor beside the empty pitcher and my mud-stained boots.
Then I turned to the last of my new finery, a dark blue cloak, thick and luxurious. I slung the cloak around my shoulders and stepped to the door. It was heavier on my shoulders than any of the tattered cloaks I'd worn before, and that weight seemed to strengthen me. I grabbed the strap of my pack in one hand, straightened my back, and left the room.
Across the hall I found the door Claighan had pointed out standing closed. I tried the handle, but it was locked. I heard voices within, low and furious, but I could not make out any words. I raised a hand to knock, and then a soft voice stopped me.
"Probably not your wisest course of action." It came from behind me. A woman's voice.
I jumped. I spun around. I fell back against the door with a
and heard a curious exclamation from within the room.
She grinned, one corner of her mouth doing all the work, and I felt a flush rise into my cheeks. She raised an eyebrow. "It's not any better when you knock with your shoulder blades."
I stepped away from the door, cast a glance back at it, then moved out into the middle of the corridor. It was a young woman who'd startled me, maybe a year older than me. She sat up very straight on a low bench set against the wall opposite Claighan's door.
She had chestnut hair long and loose, charcoal eyes with just a hint of blue to them, and sun-dark skin that was out of place—but still quite alluring—on a nobleman's daughter. She had to be that. She wore a white silk blouse that was deliciously tight-fitting, and loose gray riding skirts that showed toned calves and pretty little feet accustomed to fine carpets.
Without thought, without embarrassment, I studied her from head to toe. I saw her smile quirk, saw her eyes sparkle, but she didn't object. Perhaps she even twisted a bit here and there as my eyes roamed, showing herself to full advantage.
Then she uncurled from her place on the bench and moved toward me like a breath of wind. She smelled like a summer sunset. She came too close and raised a hand to toy idly with the collar of my too-fine shirt.
"You've got the costume," she said, distant and thoughtful. "But you certainly don't play the part too well."
I found a breath, and then I stammered, "What part?"
"Of a prince," she said. She looked up through her lashes at me.
I chuckled and she frowned. I shook my head. "I am not a prince."
She took a slow step back, and shrugged. "Of course not," she said. She waved a hand toward me. "Not even a little. But you've got me curious. Wizards and kings rarely have time for visits from a..."
I held her gaze. "A shepherd."
"A shepherd?" Her voice rose a little at that. Then she breathed a little laugh and shook her head. "Of course. You almost look like a beggar from Chantire."
I smiled. "I have been a beggar from Chantire."
She nodded. "I thought so. That's the part you looked when you came in." I felt the surprise show on my face a heartbeat before she answered it with laughter. "Yes," she said. She nodded toward the room where I had changed. "I've been waiting here the whole time."
I felt my blush burn brighter and ducked my head. I took a breath. I met her eyes again, and they were waiting. They were delighted. They were lovely.
I licked my lips and tried a bow. "I am Daven," I said.
She returned my bow instead of offering a hand. "And I am Isabelle," she said.
"Just Isabelle?" I asked.
She arched an eyebrow at me. "Just Daven?" I spread my hands, flustered, and she laughed again. It sounded like moonlight. She came half a step closer and tilted her head to look up at me.
"I am Isabelle of Teelevon, first-born daughter of the Baron Eliade. Come all the way from the farthest corners of the Ardain to find myself a prince to take home with me."
I sighed and spread my hands. "Alas. And I am not a prince."
"Indeed not," she said. She looked up and down the hall, and then stepped closer still and lowered her voice. One conspirator to another. "But you keep working on that act. Hang onto the clothes. Maybe before long you'll be able to pull it off."
For a long moment we stood like that, our noses inches apart, her charcoal eyes wide and serious. Then my mouth broke in a grin, and hers answered it. I laughed, sharp and loud and utterly astonished, and she gave a little shrug—still smiling—and stepped away again.
I laughed myself out, then met her eyes. She waited. I shook my head. "Are you always so kind to beggars from Chantire?"
"Oh no," she said, suddenly serious. "No, not to most of them. But there's a special place in my heart for princes."
I looked at her for a long moment, and my breath escaped me again. "I'm only a shepherd," I said. My eyes lingered on hers, and I had to lick my lips again. "But I'll certainly let you know if I'm ever anything more."
She blinked, surprised, and then opened her mouth to answer. Even as she did, I heard the door behind me open. A servant was going through with a tray loaded with silver goblets and a glistening silver wine jug. Beyond him I saw Claighan, red in the face and arguing with another old man, and I felt a little shiver shake me. I remembered how important all of this was, how much depended on my appearance before the king, and here I stood in the hall flirting with a girl three times my better.