Forest mage, p.14
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       Forest Mage, p.14

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

  “What did you do? All the years I educated you, with the finest teachers I could procure! All the years of trying to instill values and honor into you! Why, Nevare? Why? Where did I fail with you?”

  It was difficult to read while he ranted at me. My eyes skittered over the page, and phrases leapt out at me: A post-recovery condition…unlikely to respond to any treatment…may worsen with time…impossible to carry out the normal duties of a cavalla officer…dismissed from King’s Cavalla Academy…unlikely to be able to serve in a satisfactory manner in any branch of the military at any level…

  And at the bottom, the signature I knew so well, damning me to a useless life living on my brother’s charity beneath the weight of my father’s contempt. I slowly sank back into my seat, the page still clutched in my hands. There was a humming in my ears, and stupidly I thought of the Spindle and its endless dance. My mouth felt dry and I could not form any words. My father had no such problem. He continued castigating me for my irresponsible, self-indulgent, foolish, selfish, senseless ways. I finally found a breath and remembered how to move my mouth.

  “I don’t know what this is about, Father. Truly, I don’t. ”

  “It’s about the end of your career, you fool. It’s about no future for you, and shame for your family. A medical discharge for being too fat! That’s what it’s about! Damn you, boy. Damn you. You couldn’t even fail with dignity. To lose your career because you couldn’t refrain from stuffing food in your mouth. What have you done to us? What will my old comrades think of me, sending them such a soldier son?”

  His voice ran down. His hands, still clutching additional papers, were shaking. He felt this as his personal failure. His shame. His dignity. The honor of his family. Never had he considered how this might feel to me. My father had gone to stand by the window. He read through his handful of papers with his back to me, the writing tilted toward the light. I heard him give a small grunt, as if he’d been struck. A moment later, I heard the gasp of an indrawn breath. He turned to look at me, the papers still held out before him. “Filth,” he said with great feeling. “Of all the disgusting behaviors I might fear a son of mine might indulge in, this! This!”

  “I don’t know what you are talking about,” I said again, stupidly. I wondered why the doctor hadn’t spoken to me before I left. I knew a wild moment of hope in which I wondered if it were all a mistake, if this discharge had been written when I was still terribly ill. A glance at the date on the paper ended that dream. The good doctor had signed it several days after I’d left the academy. “I don’t understand,” I said, more to myself than my father.

  “Don’t you? It’s here in black and white. Read it for yourself. ” He left the window and as he angrily strode from the room, he hurled the papers at me. It was not a satisfactory gesture. Not one even reached me. They fluttered out around him and settled on the floor. When he slammed the door behind him, that brief gust of wind stirred them again. I bent over to pick them up, grunting as I did so. My belly got in the way, and the waistband of my pants seemed too tight. I scowled as I painstakingly gathered up what proved to be my transcript and all my records, including my medical file.

  I took them to the table and sorted them. Strange. All these papers were about me, and yet I’d never seen most of them before. Here was a secretary’s copy of the accusing letter that Colonel Stiet had sent to my father over the incident with Cadet Lieutenant Tiber. Here was, surprisingly, a letter of commendation from Captain Maw, saying that I had shown extraordinary ability as an independent thinker in his engineering and drafting class, and suggesting that I might best serve the King’s Cavalla as a scout on the frontier. Was that what had so upset my father? I sorted more paper. There were tallies of my test scores for my various classes. My grades were all exemplary. Surely they had been up to his expectations, not that I’d ever expected him to acknowledge it.

  Page 50


  The medical file on me was thick. I had not realized that Dr. Amicas had kept such complete records. There was a log of my illness. It began with great detail, but by the fourth day, when cadets were dropping like flies with the plague, the entries were abbreviated to “Fever continues. Tried giving him mint in his water to cool his systems. ” Toward the end of the file, I found notes on my recovery, and then more notes that tracked my increasing weight and girth. He’d graphed it. The continuing climb of the line was undeniable. Had that angered my father? He now knew that I had lied when I said the doctor had expected my weight gain to be temporary. Looking at the evidence, I felt a sudden sinking of heart. The line did not falter. It had risen every day since my fever had subsided. Was that what the doctor expected it to do? How long would it continue? How long could such a trend continue?

  Toward the bottom of the stack, I found what had damned me in my father’s eyes. This document was not in the doctor’s handwriting. My name was marked on the top of the sheet, and a date. Below it was a set of questions, questions that rang oddly familiar in my mind. An aide’s notes below each one recorded my answer.

  Did you go to Dark Evening in Old Thares?


  Did you eat or drink there?


  What did you eat? What did you drink?

  Potatoes, chestnuts, meat skewer. Cadet denies drinking anything.

  Did you encounter any Specks there?


  Cadet specifically mentions a female Speck. “Beautiful. ”

  Did you have any contact with any Speck that evening?

  Cadet evasive.

  Did your contact include sexual congress?

  Cadet denied. Continued questioning. Cadet evasive. Cadet eventually admitted sexual contact.

  I stared at the damning words. But I had not. I did not. I hadn’t had sexual contact with a Speck on Dark Evening, and I certainly hadn’t confessed that I had to the aide. I remembered him now, vaguely, as a dark shape silhouetted against a window that was too bright with light. I remembered him badgering me for an answer when my mouth was dry and sticky and my head pounded with pain.

  “Yes or no, Cadet. Answer yes or no. Did you have sexual contact with a Speck?”

  I had told him something to make him go away. I didn’t remember what. But I’d never had sexual contact with a Speck. At least, not in real life. Only in my fever dreams had I lain with Tree Woman. And that had been only a dream.

  Hadn’t it?

  I shook my head at myself. It was becoming more and more difficult for me to draw a firm line between my real life and the strange experiences that had befallen me ever since the Kidona Dewara had exposed me to Plains magic. In her medium’s trance, Epiny had confirmed that I had indeed been split into two persons, and one of me had sojourned in another world. I had been willing to accept that. I’d been able to accept it because I thought it was over. I’d recovered the lost part of my self and made it mine again. I had believed that my Speck self would merge with my real self, and the contradictions would cease troubling me.

  Yet time after time, that strange other self intruded into my life, in ways that were becoming more and more destructive to me. I recognized him when I’d lain beside the farm girl, and he’d triumphed at Dancing Spindle. That Nevare, I felt, that “Soldier’s Boy” had been the one to spout anger so drastically at Carsina. I’d known him by the anger pulsing in my blood. He’d had the courage to free the dove from the sacrificial hook. I’d felt him again whenever I’d found words to confront my father in the days since the wedding. He wasn’t a wise influence on me. But he could rally my courage and foolhardiness and suddenly push me to assert myself. He relished confrontation in a way I did not. I shook my head. In that, he was a truer son to my father than this Nevare was. Yet I had to admit there had been times when I’d valued his insight. He had been with me the first time I glimpsed a true forest on my river journey to Old Thares, and it had been his anger I’d felt over the slain birds at Rosse’s wedding. In quieter mome
nts, his vision of the natural world replaced mine. I would see a tree sway or hear the call of a bird, and for the passing instant of his influence, those things would mesh with my being in a way my father’s son would not understand. I no longer denied the existence of my Speck self, but I did all I could to prevent him controlling my day-to-day existence.

  But this change to my body was something I could not ignore nor exclude from my daily reality. As part of my “real” life, it made no sense. The rigors of my journey home and my fast should have made me lose weight. Instead, I’d grown fatter. Had I caught the plague because I’d dreamed of congress with a Speck woman? Was my fat a consequence of the plague? If so, then I could no longer deny that the magic permeated every part of my life now. For a dizzying instant, I perceived that the magic was completely in control of my life now.

  Page 51


  I snatched my thoughts back from that precipice. It was too terrifying to consider. Why had this befallen me? As logically as a mathematical proof, I perceived the beginning of these changes in me, the place where my path had diverged from the future I had been promised and into this nightmarish present. I knew when my life had been snatched out of my control. An instant later, I knew whom to blame for it.

  My father.

  At that thought, I felt the milling guilt in me stop just as the Dancing Spindle had ground to a halt. That single thought, that pinning of blame, made all events since my experience with Dewara fall into a new order. “It wasn’t my fault,” I said quietly, and the words were like cool balm on a burning wound. I looked at the door to the parlor. It was closed, my father no longer there. Childishly, I still addressed him. “It was never my fault. You did it. You put me on this path, Father. ”

  My satisfaction in finding someone to blame was very short-lived. Blaming him solved nothing. Dejected, I leaned back in my chair. It didn’t matter who had put me in this situation. Here I was. I looked down at my ungainly body. I filled the chair. The waistband of my trousers dug into me. With a grunt and a sigh, I shoved at it, easing it down under my belly. I’d seen fat old soldiers hang their beer guts out over their trouser tops this way. Now I understood why. It was more comfortable.

  I sat up in my chair and gathered my papers together. When I tried to fit them all back into the envelope I discovered another letter among them. I tugged it out.

  This last enclosure was addressed to me in the doctor’s hand. I threw it on the floor in childish pique. What worse thing could he send to me than what he already had?

  But after a few moments of looking at it there, I bent down laboriously, picked it up, and opened it.

  “Dear Nevare,” he had written. Not Cadet Nevare. Simply Nevare. I clenched my teeth for a moment and then read on.

  With great regret, I have done what was necessary. Please remember that your discharge from the Academy is an honorable one, without stigma. Nonetheless, I imagine you hate me at this moment. Or perhaps, in the weeks since I have seen you, you have finally come to accept that something is terribly wrong with your body, and that it is a crippling flaw that you will have to learn to manage. It is, unfortunately, a flaw that renders you completely unfit for the military.

  You were able to accept that those of your fellows whose health was broken by the plague had to give up their hopes of being active cavalla officers. I now ask you to see your own affliction in the same light. You are just as physically unfit for duty as Spinrek Kester.

  You may feel that your life is over at this moment, or no longer worth living. I pray to the good god that you will have the strength to see that there are other worthwhile paths that you can tread. I have seen that you have a bright mind. The exercise of that intelligence does not always demand a fit body to support it. Turn your thoughts to how you can still lead a useful life, and focus your will toward it.

  It has not been easy for me to reach this decision. I hope you appreciate that I delayed it as long as I possibly could, hoping against hope that I was wrong. My research and reading have led me to discover at least three other cases, which, although poorly documented, indicate that your reaction to the plague is a rare but not unique phenomenon.

  Although I am sure you are little inclined to do so at this time, I urge you to remain in contact with me. You have the opportunity to turn your misfortune into a benefit for the medical profession. If you will continue to chart weekly your increases in weight and girth, while keeping a record of your consumption of food, and if you will send me that information every two months, it would be of great benefit to my study of the plague and its manifestations after the disease stage has passed. In this, you could serve your king and the military, for I am certain that every bit of information we gather about this pestilence will eventually become the ammunition we use to defeat it.

  In the good god’s light,

  Dr. Jakib Amicas

  I folded his letter carefully, though my strongest impulse was to rip it to pieces. The gall of the man, to dash my hopes and then suggest that I pass my idle time in helping him to further his ambitions by graphing and charting my misfortune! I moved very slowly as I put all the documents and letters back in meticulous order and slid them back in the envelope. When it was done, I looked at it. A coffin for my dreams.

  I could not finish reading Epiny’s letter. I tried, but it was all prattle about her new life with Spink. She liked taking care of the chickens and gathering the eggs warm from the nests. Good. I was glad for her. At least someone was still contemplating a future, even if it was one that involved chickens. I gathered my papers, left the parlor, and slowly climbed the stairs to my room.

  Page 52


  In the days that followed, I moved like a ghost in my old home. I had entered an endless tunnel of black despair. This day-to-day existence of meaningless tasks was my future. I had nothing beyond this to anticipate. I hid from my father, and my sisters scrupulously aided me in avoiding them. Once, when I encountered Yaril in the hallway, an expression of disgust contorted her face and anger filled her eyes. Never before had she looked so much like my father. I stared at her, horrified. She made a great show of holding her skirts away from me as she hurried past me and into the music room. She closed the door loudly.

  I considered cornering her and demanding to know when she had become such a foul little chit. Growing up, I had indulged her, and often shielded her from my father’s wrath. Her betrayal stung me as no other. I took two strides after her.

  “Nevare. ”

  My mother’s soft voice came from behind me. Surprised, I spun around.

  “Let her go, Nevare,” my mother suggested softly.

  Irrationally, I turned my anger on her. “She behaves as if my weight is a personal insult to her, with no thought of how it affects my life or what I’ve lost as a consequence of what has befallen me. Does she think I did this deliberately? Do you think I want to look like this?”

  My voice had risen to a shout. Nevertheless, my mother answered me softly. “No, Nevare. I don’t think you do. ” Her gray eyes met mine steadily. She stood before me, small and arrow-straight, just as she stood when confronting my father. At that thought, my anger trickled out of me like liquid from a punctured water skin. I felt worse than emptied. Impotent. Humiliated by my show of temper. I hung my head and shame washed through me.

  I think my mother knew it.

  “Come, Nevare. Let us find a quiet place and talk for a bit. ”

  I nodded heavily and followed her.

  We avoided the music room, and the parlor where Elisi sat reading poetry. Instead, she led me down the hall to a small prayer room adjacent to the women’s portion of our household chapel. I remembered the room well, though I had not entered it since I was a child and in my mother’s daily care.

  The room had not changed. A half-circle of stone bench faced the meditation wall. At one end of the bench a small, well-tended brazier burned smokelessly. At the other end, a
stone bowl held a pool of placid water. A mural of the good god’s blessings covered the meditation wall, with niches in the art where offerings of incense could be set. Two alcoves already held glowing bars of incense. A dark green mint-scented bar burned low in a niche painted like a harvest basket, an offering for good crops. A fat black wedge released the scent of anise into the air as it glimmered, nearly spent, in the niche for good health that hovered over a cherubic child’s head.

  With housewifely efficiency, my mother removed the anise incense with a pair of black tongs reserved for that task. She carried it to the small worship pool; it hissed as she dunked it in, and she stood a moment in reverent silence as the remains of the anise brick settled to the bottom. She took a clean white cloth from a stack of carefully folded linens and carefully wiped the alcove clean.

  “Choose the next offering, Nevare,” she invited me over her shoulder. She smiled as she said those words, and I almost smiled back. As a child, I had always vied with my sisters for the privilege of choosing. I had forgotten how important that had once been to me.

  There was a special cabinet with one hundred small drawers, each holding a different scent of incense. I stood before the intricately carved front, considering all my choices, and then asked, “Why are you sacrificing for health? Who is ill?”

  She looked surprised. “Why—I burn it for you, of course. That you may recover from what you have—what has befallen you. ”

  I stared at her, torn between being touched by her concern and being annoyed that she thought her prayers and silly scented offerings could help me. An instant later I recognized that I did think her incense sacrifices were silly. They were playacting, religion by rote, an offering that cost us so little as to be insignificant. How, I suddenly wanted to know, did burning a brick of leaves and oil benefit the good god? What sort of a foolish merchant god did we worship, that he dispensed blessings in exchange for smoke? I felt suddenly that my life teetered on an eroded foundation. I did not even know when I had stopped having confidence in such things. I only knew it was gone. The protection of the good god had once stood between all darkness and me. I had thought it a fortress wall; it had been a lace curtain.

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