Forest mage, p.13
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       Forest Mage, p.13
 

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

  I ate as I had never eaten before. I lost awareness of the people beside me and of the festivity that swirled around me. I gave no thought to what my father might be thinking or my mother feeling. I did not worry that Carsina might chance by and be aghast at my appetite. I simply ate, and the intense pleasure of that exquisite meal after my long fast has never left me. I was a man caught up in a profoundly carnal pleasure. I felt a deep satisfaction at replenishing my reserves, and I gave no thought to anything else. I cannot even say how long it took me to consume both platters, or if there was any conversation around me. At some point, Lord and Lady Poronte passed some pleasantry with my parents and then drifted away to socialize with their other guests. I scarcely noticed. I was a soul consumed with the simple and absolute pleasure of eating.

  Only when both platters were empty did I glide back into awareness of my surroundings. My father sat in stony silence. My mother was smiling and making vapid small talk in a hopeless effort to preserve the image of a couple having a conversation. My belly now strained against my belt. Embarrassment battled with a strong urge to rise and seek out the sweets table. Despite what I had consumed, I was still aware of the scent of warm vanilla sugar hanging in the air, and the fragrance of tart strawberries packed into sweet little pastries.

  “Are you quite finished, Nevare?” My father asked the question so softly that someone else might have thought him a kind man.

  “I don’t know what came over me,” I said contritely.

  “It’s called gluttony,” he callously replied. He had excellent control over his features. As he spoke so quietly to me, his eyes roved around the room. He nodded to someone he saw there. He smiled as he said, “I have never been so ashamed of you. Do you hate your brother? Do you seek to humiliate me? What motivates you, Nevare? Do you think to avoid you military duty? You will not. One way or another, I’ll see you do you serve your fate. ” He turned his head, waved at another acquaintance. “I warn you. If you will not maintain your body and your dignity and earn a commission at the academy and win a noble lady as your wife, why, then, you can go as a common foot soldier. But go you shall, boy. Go you shall. ”

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  Only my mother and I could hear the venom in his questions. Her eyes were very wide and her face pale. I suddenly realized that she feared my father, and that right now her fear was extreme. He flicked a glance at her. “Excuse yourself, my lady, and flee this scene if it distresses you. I give you permission. ”

  With an apologetic look to me, she did. Her eyes were anxious, but she put a bright smile on her face, rose, and gave us a tiny wave of farewell as if she regretted having to leave us for a time. Then she fled across the room and out of the hall.

  I glued a smile on my lips and cursed my own creeping fear of him. “I spoke the truth to you, Father. I told the servant to bring me a small serving of meat and bread. Once that quantity had arrived and Lady Poronte had witnessed it, what was I to do? Waste the abundance they shared with us? Claim the food did not suit me and turn it away? The servant placed me in a bad position. I made the best of it that I could. Tell me. What should I have done?”

  “If you had served yourself a simple meal, instead of waiting to be attended like an old noble’s heir son, none of this would have happened. ”

  “And if I had been born with prescience, that is precisely what I would have done,” I retorted tightly. Where, I wondered in the shocked silence that followed my words, had that retort come from?

  Astonishment that I would stand up to him jolted my father’s smile off his face. I was tempted to believe that I had seen a brief flash of respect in his eyes before he narrowed them at me. He took a short sharp breath as if to speak, and then snorted it out in disdain. “This is not the place nor the time, but I promise you, I will have a reckoning with you over this. For the rest of the day, say little and eat nothing. That isn’t a request, Nevare. It’s an order. Do you understand me?”

  I thought of a dozen things I could say. But that was after I had given him a tight nod, and he had pushed his chair back and left me. The two large empty platters on the table rebuked me. There was a swallow of wine left in my glass. I reflected bitterly that he had said nothing about drinking and drank it down.

  By the time evening arrived and I again mounted to the top of the carriage for the journey home, I was more sodden with brandy than a well-soaked fruitcake. But that, of course, was civilized and acceptable behavior for a soldier son. No one ever rebuked me for that.

  CHAPTER SIX

  A DAY OF LETTERS

  I did my best to be invisible during the following days of festivities at my home. It was not easy. I had to be present at the dinners, and with a house full of guests, it was difficult to avoid socializing completely. Most unpleasant of all for me was that the Grenalters had been invited to stay with us. Carsina and my sister Yaril snubbed me at every opportunity. If by chance I entered a room they were in, they would immediately sweep disdainfully from it. It maddened me with frustration, the more so in that never once did they enter a room and allow me the chance to vacate it as soon as I saw them. I told myself it was juvenile to long for the chance to show Carsina just how uninterested I was in her, but in my heart I burned to hurt her pride as she had injured mine. I contented myself with making savagely accurate accounts of all my interactions with her in my soldier son journal.

  Rosse and Cecile had departed on their wedding trip. They intended to travel downriver to Old Thares, where my uncle would host a reception for them. Cecile had two aunts and three uncles in the capitol, so Rosse would be exhibited and inspected for several weeks before they returned home to settle into the rooms prepared for the new couple. I pitied them, having to begin a new life under my father’s roof. My father, I was sure, would grant them little privacy and even less autonomy.

  My father and I were at war now. He was courteous to me while houseguests were present, but once they all had departed, he made his displeasure clear. That evening, just as the house should have been peaceful, he verbally flogged me with all my shortcomings as a son, never giving me an opportunity to reply. After a time, from some depth I didn’t know I possessed, I found an icy calm and refused to give him any response. When he angrily dismissed me, I went directly to my room and to bed and spent most of that night staring up at the darkened ceiling and seething. He sought to bring me to heel like a whipped puppy. He cared for nothing I might say in my defense. Fine. Then he would hear absolutely nothing from me.

  After that, our conflict was conducted in silence. I avoided my father’s company. When my mother sought conversation with me I spoke about the academy, my teachers and friends, and my uncle’s family. Of my weight gain and my war with my father, I did not speak. When I was not with her, I rediscovered my boyhood haunts along the river. I went fishing. I counted the days until this “holiday” would be over and I could return to the academy.

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  My cold conflict with my father made him irritable with the entire family. Elisi retreated to her music and books. Yaril often appeared with her eyes red from weeping. My father had chastised her severely for her “shameless flirtation’ with Kase Remwar. Plainly, there had been no marriage offer between the families. As an uncommitted first son, Kase had danced, dined, and chatted with any number of eligible young maidens at Rosse’s wedding. I suspected it was simply his nature, but Yaril blamed me. I could have taken vengeance on her by telling my father that I’d seen her kiss Remwar before I’d even departed for the academy. But even in my anger and hurt, I knew that the consequences that would fall on her would be far heavier than her foolishness merited. And keeping that secret from my father was one more bit of damage I dealt him. He thought he knew so much about his household and how to run the lives of his children? He knew us not at all.

  Vanze busied himself with visiting friends in the area before departing for the seminary. I found a quiet moment to bid him
farewell privately, and told him that I wished him every success. We’d already spent so much of our lives apart that I had little else to say to my younger brother. We were strangers joined only by our bloodlines.

  My mother had hoped I would spend at least another week at home, but by the third day after the wedding guests departed, I was eager to leave. She had found the leftover fabric from my original uniforms, and with great effort had managed to put eases into my trousers and jacket. Cleaned and brushed, my uniform looked nearly as good as it ever had. She carefully wrapped it up in heavy paper and tied it with string, cautioning me not to wear it on my journey back, but to keep it clean, so that I’d have clothing that fitted me on my first day back at my classes. Her concern touched me. As I took the package from her, I was bracing myself to tell her that I planned to leave the next morning when one of my father’s men came up from the Landing with a larger than usual bundle of mail for him. My mother sorted through it as she always did. I watched her, waiting to have a quiet moment to speak with her.

  “Here’s something from the academy for your father. Probably another invitation to lecture. Oh. Here are two, no, three notes for you. Someone has scratched out the academy address and sent them on to you here instead of holding them for you. How peculiar. These will be invitations for Rosse and Cecile to visit when they return from their trip. Oh, and here’s one for Yaril from Carsina. They’ve become quite the correspondents in the last few months. ”

  I scarcely heard her words after she handed me my envelopes. The first one was in a dove-gray envelope, a very heavy paper, but the return address was what shocked me. Caulder Stiet was writing to me from Newton. So he had gone to live with his scholar uncle after all. His proud father had wanted nothing to do with his soldier son after the plague had wasted him away to a shadow and broken his spirit. The boy had been a nuisance and a pest to all the new noble first-years at the academy, and to me in particular. Still, I despised Colonel Stiet for what he had done. He’d literally given his son to his younger brother, to raise as a scholar instead of a soldier. Immoral. I shook my head and looked at my other two letters.

  One was from Epiny and the other from Spink. It seemed odd that each would write to me. Usually Epiny penned me a lengthy epistle and Spink just added a postscript. I studied the envelopes. All three had been sent to my academy address, but forwarded to me at home. I scowled at that. What was Rory thinking to send my mail trailing after me? I’d be back soon.

  Curiosity made me open the letter from Caulder first. His penmanship had not improved. His very short and polite note said that his uncle studied rocks and was very interested in the one I had given Caulder. Would I be so kind as to send them a detailed map that showed where I had found it? He would be ever indebted to me if I could, and remained, my friend, Caulder Stiet. I scowled over it and wondered what sort of mischief or game this was. Although we had parted on decent terms, I did not trust the little weasel and had little inclination to do him this favor. I would have set it aside, but it contained a second note from his uncle, carefully penned onto very expensive paper, noting that geology and the study of minerals was his area of scholarship, and my rock was quite an interesting mix. He would greatly appreciate my time and effort to comply with Caulder’s request. I set it aside with a growl of irritation. I owed Caulder nothing and his uncle even less. The only reason I did not discard it was that I knew Caulder’s father and my Aunt Daraleen were friends. Any rudeness I committed might find its way back to my Uncle Sefert’s doorstep. And I did owe debts of courtesy to him. I would reply to this. Later.

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  Next I opened the letter from Spink. The first few lines made my breath catch.

  The Speck plague has come to Bitter Springs. Epiny has become very ill and I fear for her life.

  The pages fluttered from my hand to the floor. Heart hammering, I snatched up the envelope from Epiny and opened it immediately. There was her familiar handwriting, perhaps a bit more scrawling than usual, and the first line read,

  I do hope that Spink’s letter did not overly alarm you. The spring water treatment proved nothing less than amazing.

  Heart still pounding, I gathered up the scattered pages of Spink’s letter and took all of my mail into the parlor. I opened the curtains to let in more light, and sat down on a cushioned chair. I spread out my mail on a low table and pieced together the puzzle. Spink’s letter had arrived at the Academy days before Epiny’s had, but they had been sent on together. Relieved of the worst of my fears, I sat down to read the missives in order.

  Spink’s letter was wrenching, and not even Epiny’s letter that proved her survival could eliminate all his bad news. He had no idea how the plague had come to their little settlement at Bitter Springs. No one had reported seeing any Specks, or even any ill persons. He himself had continued to make a slow but steady recovery from the illness, despite occasional bouts of night fever and sweats. He had thought he had left the dread disease far behind in Old Thares. A small group of Plainsmen who lived near Bitter Springs had succumbed to it first. It had devastated their little settlement, swiftly reducing it from seventeen families to seven. Before anyone had realized they were dealing with Speck plague, it had spread. Two of Spink’s sisters had caught it. Epiny had insisted on nursing them, saying that as she survived the plague once, she was probably immune to it. She had been wrong. When Spink had mailed his letter to me, both his sisters and Epiny were severely ill and not expected to recover. His mother was struggling to care for them with Spink’s help, but he feared that she would exhaust herself and also fall to the sickness. He strove to nurse Epiny just as faithfully as she had cared for him in his time of sickness.

  It is a terrible irony that the disease that helped bring us together may now part us forever. It was so hard to write to her father and warn him of her decline. I tell you truthfully, Nevare, that if she dies, the better part of me will die with her. I do not think I will have the courage to go on. In a last effort to save them, we will resort to practices that my mother deems “little better than superstition. ” I will take her and my sisters to Bitter Springs and their supposedly healing waters. Pray for us.

  So his letter ended.

  I set his heartbroken letter aside and eagerly took up Epiny’s missive. It was written in her usual rambling style, very frustrating to someone who simply wanted to know how everyone fared there. Nevertheless, I forced myself to read it slowly and carefully.

  My dear cousin Nevare,

  I do hope that Spink’s letter did not overly alarm you. The spring water treatment proved nothing less than amazing. Having had the plague before, albeit in a much milder form, I was perhaps more aware than anyone else of how severely it had stricken me this time. My cousin, I did not expect to survive! I do not even remember the wagon journey to the springs, nor even the first time they immersed me. I am told that Spink carried me bodily into the water, and putting his hand over my nose and mouth, pinched them firmly shut, and then carried me under with him, where we remained for as long as he could hold his breath. When we emerged, he gave a similar treatment to each of his sisters. Others from the family settlement had journeyed with us and were similarly treated.

  Then they set up a camp for us, unfolding cots under the wide blue sky and making of the meadow near the springs an open-air infirmary. On the first evening I awoke there, I already felt a lessening in my disease. Nonetheless, I was quite willful and difficult, and poor Spink was obliged to hold me down and force me to drink a large quantity of the spring water. Oh, it tasted foul and smelled worse! My fever was not entirely abated, and I called him names and scratched his poor dear face for his troubles with me. Then I fell again into a sleep, but it was a deeper, truer sleep, and when I awoke, feeling ever so much better, the first thing I demanded to know was who had scratched him so, that I could take revenge on her! I was so abashed to be told I had done it!

  We remained encamped by the springs for almo
st a week, and every day we forced ourselves to drink that noxious water, and most of our food was cooked with it. When I realized how much I was recovering, and how swiftly, I demanded that Spink join me in this water cure. Nevare, you cannot imagine the change it has wrought in him! I will not say he is his old self, but he has begun to eat more heartily, to walk with more confidence, and most important to me, the light is back in his eyes and he laughs often. Already he speaks of returning to the academy and his studies and career. Oh, if only that dream can come true for him!

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  And now I must tell you—

  “What is the meaning of this?” My father’s roar of fury and anguish tore my attention from Epiny’s letter. Loose pages in my hand, I looked up to find him glaring from the parlor door. He bore down on me like a cavalla charge. In one hand he held the large envelope from the academy. In the other were several sheets of paper. He shook them at me. His face was red, the veins standing out on his temples, and I would not have been surprised to see froth fly from his jaws, so wroth was he. “Explain this!” he roared again. “Account for this, you young scoundrel!”

  “If you would let me see what it is, perhaps I could,” I said to him. I did not mean to sound impertinent, but of course I did.

  In fury, my father lifted his hand as to cuff me. I forced myself to stand up tall, meet his eyes and await his blow. Instead, with a snarl of frustration, he thrust a letter at me. I managed to catch it before it fluttered to the floor between us. It was on academy letterhead, but it was not from Colonel Rebin. Instead, I recognized Dr. Amicas’s handwriting. In a bold hand at the top, centred on the line, he had written Honorable Medical Discharge. I gaped at it.

 
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