Forest mage, p.10
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       Forest Mage, p.10

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  She wiped her eyes hastily. “Oh, weddings! My own was just such a disaster as this one is, right until the moment when it all went perfectly. I’m sure we will all be fine, Nevare. Try on your suit. ”

  “Elisi seemed quite upset. And she seemed to blame it on me. ”

  “Oh. Well. ” My mother sniffed and then hastily wiped her nose and eyes again. “Well, we had assumed you would wear your uniform, so we did not allow time to sew clothing for you. So there has been less time to work on Elisi’s dress, and the pattern for the neckline was quite difficult. That new fashion, with the standing ruffle, has gone all wrong. Still, even without the ruffle, it looks nice. She is just upset. There will be a young man at the wedding, Derwith Toller. He is a guest of the Poronte family. We don’t know the Tollers well, but his family has made an offer for Elisi, and of course she wishes to look lovely when she meets him. ”

  I continued to nod as she unwound a long and convoluted tale about a young man who might be a good match for Elisi and the difficulties of the standing ruffle when the lace was wider than what had been ordered and too soft to stand well. I fear it all seemed vapidly trivial to me, but I had the sense not to say so. Privately I thought that if this young man were going to make a marriage proposal based on how well the lace stood up on Elisi’s neckline, then he wasn’t much of a catch, but I forbore from saying it.

  At last my mother’s tongue ran down, but strange to say, she seemed relieved to have rattled off her woes to me. I think her telling moved the seamstresses, for one suddenly stood up and said, “Let me have one more try with that lace. If we back it with a piece of the dress goods and use a goodly amount of starch, it might be a pretty effect and make that dratted ruffle stand. ”

  I tried to get away with carrying my suit off to my room, but had no luck. I had to try it on yet again, and although I thought I looked dreary and dull in the mirror, the three women pronounced it a “respectable fit for such short notice” and sent me on my way with it.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  ROSSE’S WEDDING

  W e were all roused when the sky was barely gray. The girls ate in their rooms from trays lest a breakfast mishap soil their traveling dresses. I joined my father and brothers at the table. It was the first time I’d seen Vanze since I’d returned. My priest brother had journeyed home for the ceremony, only arriving last night. My father and Vanze were serving themselves from the sideboard when I entered the room. Vanze had shot up while he was at seminary. Despite being the youngest, he was now the tallest of us.

  “You’ve grown!” I exclaimed in surprise.

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  When he turned to greet me, his shock was evident. “And so have you, but not taller!” he blurted out, and both my elder brother and my father laughed aloud. After a painful moment, I joined in.

  “But not for long,” I promised him. “I’ve been fasting for the last three days. I’ve resolved to take this off as quickly as I put it on. ”

  My father shook his head dolefully. “I doubt it, Nevare. I hate to say it, but you don’t look a bit thinner to me. I fear it will take more than three days of fasting. Have a bite now, to get you through the start of the day. Can’t have you fainting at your brother’s wedding!” Again they all laughed at me.

  His remarks stung me, for all that they were true. Nevertheless, his tone was affable, for the occasion had sweetened his mood. I swallowed the hurt, resolving not to say or do anything that might reawaken his displeasure with me.

  I found eggs, meat, bread, fruit, and milk set up on the sideboard. The sight and smell of the food dizzied me. My discipline might have failed me if my father had not been frowning over every morsel I put on my plate. I felt as furtive as a wild animal stealing food. I put a piece of toast on my plate, glanced at my father, and added two small sausages. I took up the spoon for the scrambled eggs. A small frown creased his brow. I took a tiny serving. I decided I would risk his wrath by adding one other item.

  It was an agonizing decision. I finally settled on a serving of apple compote. The aroma of the warm, sugary fruit almost made me swoon. I filled a mug with hot black coffee and took my feast to the table. I wanted to fill my mouth with huge bites of food. I wanted to feel the substance of chewing and swallowing a mouthful of eggs and spicy sausage heaped on crisp buttered toast. Instead, I forced myself to divide my meal into small bites and eat it very slowly. I filled my coffee mug twice, hoping the hot liquid would help satisfy my hunger. Yet when my plate was scraped clean of the last crumb, my body still clamored for more. I took a deep breath and pushed my chair back from the table. I would not starve, I told myself severely. This discipline of tiny meals would not last forever, only until I had regained my previous state. Besides, there would be a feast following the wedding today, and I must partake of that to avoid giving offense to the bride’s family. Such thoughts were consolation.

  I glanced up to find Rosse and Vanze pointedly not looking at me. My father was regarding me with distaste. “If you are finished, Nevare, perhaps we can depart for your brother’s wedding?”

  They had been waiting for me while I stretched out my meal. A flush of shame rose to my face. “Yes. I’m finished. ” I followed them from the room, full of loathing for myself and anger at them.

  The carriage awaited us, festooned with wedding garlands. My mother and sisters were already inside. Blankets draped them to keep the dust away from their carefully arranged dresses. There were seven of us in the family, and at any time that would have meant a crowded ride. Today, with the voluminous gowns the women wore and my voluminous body, it was a hopeless fit. Before I could volunteer, my father said, “Nevare, you will ride with the coachman. ”

  It was humiliating to climb up to my seat while they watched. The seams of my new trousers strained, and I could only hope that the stitches would hold. The driver, dressed all in bright blue for the occasion, looked directly forward, as if by gazing at me he might share my shame. My father and brothers managed to fit themselves into the carriage, the door was closed, and we were away at last.

  It was a morning’s ride to the Poronte estate. For most of the journey, we followed the road along the river, but for the last hour and a half the carriage jolted and bumped along a lesser road that wound its way into the heart of the Poronte lands. Lord Poronte had built his manor on an immense upthrust of stone. It commanded a wide view of all the plains and reminded me more of a citadel than a gentleman’s home. Rumor said that he was still in debt to the stonemasons who had come from Cartem to erect the thick rock walls of his mansion. Lord Poronte had taken the motto “Stone Endures,” and it was etched into a stone arch that framed the entry to his grounds.

  When I look back at my brother’s wedding day, my memory shies like a badly trained horse. I felt that every person who greeted me betrayed a jolt of shock at my appearance. At first sight of me, Lord Poronte pursed his lips as if he were trying to restrain a lively goldfish in his mouth. His lady actually lifted a hand to smother a giggle and then quickly excused herself, saying that she must assist the bride in her final preparations. I both felt and saw my family’s embarrassment.

  A servant led us upstairs, while others followed with the ladies’ luggage. A suite of rooms had been set aside for my family to freshen ourselves after our journey and where the girls and my mother could change from their traveling dresses into their wedding clothes. We men more quickly put ourselves to rights. My father and brothers were eager to descend and join the festive gathering. I followed with trepidation.

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  The Poronte ballroom was not as large as ours, but it was still a gracious room, and at that moment it bustled with guests. The fashion that year was for very full skirts, with layers of fabrics in different tints of the chosen color. From the landing at the top of the stairs, it reminded me of a garden, with the women as lovely blossoms of every hue. A few months ago, I’d have been eager to descend those stairs
and find my Carsina among the bouquet. Now I dreaded the moment when she would see me. Reluctantly, I descended the steps. My father and brothers made themselves convivial among the guests. I did not attempt to follow them or to stand near them as they hailed old friends and renewed acquaintances. I did not blame them for disassociating themselves from me.

  Everyone I greeted reacted uncomfortably to my body’s change. Some smiled stiffly and kept their eyes firmly on my face. Others frankly stared and seemed hard put to find anything intelligent to say. Kase Remwar gave a hoot of mirth and jovially asked me if the cavalla had been feeding my horse as well as it had me. Mockery countenanced as a shared jest was most common among the males of my acquaintance. I forced myself to smile and even to laugh along with them at first. At last, I retreated to concealment.

  I sought a quiet eddy in the room. Several large ornamental trellises had been draped with floral garlands to frame the family altar where the couple would make their vows. A few chairs had been placed behind the angle of the alcove. I quickly claimed one. No one approached me, let alone sought to converse with me. This was very different from the triumphant homecoming I had imagined. I had dared to imagine Carsina at my side as I cheerfully told my friends about my studies and life in Old Thares. From my vantage I could quietly observe the gathering. My father was obviously pleased with the day; he was affable and magnanimous. He and Lord Poronte, arms linked, moved through the gathering, greeting the guests. They were a powerful duo, and their alliance through the marriage would make them even more formidable in the Midlands. They paraded as if they were the happy couple rather than their offspring.

  Rosse was as nervous as any bridegroom, and endured the jibes and jests of his male friends. They had cornered him near the garden entrance, and from the roars of laughter that burst intermittently from the group, I guessed the crude nature of the banter. Vanze, my priest brother, was a fish out of water. His time at the seminary had accustomed him to a more sophisticated company than prevailed at this frontier manor. He carried his book of Holy Writ with him, for he would assist at the oath-giving of the pair, clutching it like a drowning man holds to a piece of wood. He spoke little and smiled much. I imagined he was already counting the days until he could return to the genteel atmosphere of his school. He had lived so long at his monastery that I suspected it was more of a home to him than our family abode was.

  I didn’t blame him. I strongly wished I were back at the academy.

  I found myself studying people’s bodies as I never had before. I had always accepted that with age, men and women became stouter. I had never thought less of a woman whose heavy bosom and rounded belly spoke of years of childbearing. Men of a certain age became portly and dignified. Now I found myself speculating on who was larger than I was and who was smaller. My girth would not have been shocking in a man in his mid-thirties, I decided. It was the coating of fat on a young man that made me so offensive to their eyes A few of the younger men carried substantial bellies, but they did not sport fat on their arms and legs as I did. It made me look indolent and lazy. It was a false impression, for under my fat, I was as muscular as I’d ever been. I watched the staircase that led to the upper storeys of the house with dread. I longed to behold Carsina, but feared what I would see in her face as she confronted my change. Despite my trepidation, when she appeared at the top of the stairs, I lunged to my feet like a dog that has been promised a walk. She was a vision. Her dress, as she had promised me, was a delicate pale green, with an overskirt of a richer green with trim of darker green that was the exact shade of my academy uniform. It was both modest and provocative, for the high collar of white lace emphasized the delicacy of her pale throat. A small yellow rose was pinned in her upswept hair. My sister Yaril was beside her. A simple change of clothing had transformed her from girl to woman. She wore a gown of rich turquoise, and her golden hair was netted up in an elaborate concoction of gold wire and turquoise ribbons. The cut of the dress revealed her tiny waist and the gentle swell of her hips and bosom. Despite my recent irritation with her, I felt proud of her beauty. Each of the girls wore a bracelet of silver bells for the wedding ceremony.

  Kase Remwar appeared as if by magic at the bottom of the stair. He looked up at my sister and Carsina like a dog contemplating unguarded meat. Yaril had set her heart on him, but as of yet, neither of my parents had mentioned any formal engagement. Indignation flashed in me that he dared look at my sister in such a way. I took two steps and halted, a coward. A year ago, my mere physical presence would have reminded him to respect our family, with no threats verbalized. Now, if I bobbed up beside her, I feared that I would look pompous and silly rather than properly protective of my sister’s honor. I halted where the trellised flowers still screened me.

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  I should have known that my sister would have warned Carsina that I was not the dapper trooper that she had seen off to school in the fall. The girls halted strategically midway down the stair. Surely my sister was aware that Kase’s eyes devoured her. I felt she immodestly gave him the opportunity to stare. As for Carsina, her eyes roved over the gathered folk, looking for me. My sister leaned toward her and said something. The sneer of it twisted her pretty mouth. I guessed the nature of her remark, that I would not be hard to spot among the crowd. Carsina’s smile was uncertain. She hoped that my sister was teasing her, and feared she was not.

  Hope congealed in me, replaced by harsh determination. I’d face it and get it over with. I stepped out of my concealment and made my way through the guests to the base of the stair. The moment Carsina saw me, her eyes widened in disbelief and horror. She clutched at my sister’s arm and said something. Yaril shook her head in disgust and sympathy. Carsina actually retreated a step before she mastered herself. As she and Yaril descended the stairs, Carsina’s face was set in a stubbornly bland expression, but there was despair in her eyes.

  As I drew closer, I could almost feel the anger that boiled off her. I bowed to her gravely. “Carsina. Yaril. You both look lovely. ”

  “Thank you, Nevare. ” Carsina’s voice was cool and correct.

  “More than lovely, I think. ” Kase circled behind me to stand next to Yaril. “As beauteous as blossoms. I declare, a man would be hard-pressed to say which of you were more gorgeous. ” He included them both in his smile. “May I offer to escort you to the altar alcove? The ceremony is soon to begin. ”

  Carsina turned to him with a wide smile. A shadow of discontent passed over Yaril’s face. She shot me a look of pure fury, then hastily claimed Kase’s right arm. Carsina promptly stepped past me to take his left. Kase laughed with delight, and Carsina tipped her face to smile up at him. Yaril smiled grimly. “I shall be the envy of every man in the room for the next few minutes,” Kase proclaimed.

  “That you shall,” I said quietly, but my hope that I would win some sort of response from Carsina was a vain one. They swept off toward the altar. Most of the people in the room were moving in that direction. I followed disconsolately. When I realized I was scowling, I deliberately straightened my spine and put a pleasant expression on my face. Today, I reminded myself, was my brother’s wedding day. I would not let my personal disappointment spoil it for anyone. I refused to follow the threesome or attempt to join them. Instead, I took a place sufficiently near my older sister Elisi to be recognized as her brother, yet not so close as to embarrass her. She did not look at me. A young man and an older couple whom I judged to be his parents stood not far from her. I wondered if he were the prospective suitor my mother had mentioned.

  We all gathered before the good god’s altar. Silence descended over the assembly. Vanze and a priest I did not know entered the room. The priest carried a lamp, the god’s light, and Vanze carried a large, empty silver basin, the symbol of an end to blood sacrifice. Once, I knew, a wedding would have required Rosse to preside over the slaughter of a bull, a goat, and a cat. Both he and the bride would have had to endure a ritual flogging
of three lashes, to symbolize their willingness to suffer for each other. The enlightenment of the good god had changed all that. The old gods had demanded that blood or pain be the coin that paid for any oath. I was grateful such days were gone forever.

  Rosse and my parents went to the altar to accept Cecile’s pledge. She made a grand entrance, descending the staircase to the ringing of silver bells. Her gown was blue and green, with elaborate sleeves that nearly reached the floor and an embroidered blue train that trailed several steps behind her. Every single woman in the room wore a bracelet of tiny bells, and they raised them over their heads and shook them merrily as the bride descended. Her parents followed her down the stairs. Between them they bore a large basket. As they passed through the crowd, people surged forward to toss in jingling handfuls of coins to wish the young couple wealth in their lives. Among our class, it was merely a charming tradition. Among the lower classes, such an offering might furnish the couple with a goat or a few chickens and truly become a foundation for later wealth.

  Rosse and Cecile had chosen a simple ritual for their ceremony. The day was beginning to warm, and I’m sure I was not the only guest who was grateful that we would not be required to stand in witness for too long.

  Their fathers exchanged pledges of friendship and loyalty first, and then their mothers exchanged vows to comfort, help, and refrain from gossip. I stood stoically through them. But when Cecile and Rosse made their pledges of loyalty, trust, and mutual faithfulness, my throat constricted and tears pricked my eyes. I do not know if I wanted to weep because Carsina had betrayed our fledgling love or for my scratched pride. This moment with Carsina should have been mine, I thought fiercely. It should have been a memory that we would cherish through our years together. Instead, I would have to remember always that she had forsaken me at this moment. I set my teeth and forced my lips into a rubbery smile, and when I wiped a tear from my eye, I told myself that everyone who observed it would think it was a tear of joy at my brother’s good fortune.

 
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