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Forest mage, p.25
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       Forest Mage, p.25

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

  My father’s life had come to a dead end. His heir was gone, his soldier son a failure, his wife dead, his elder daughter gone. His game board had been swept clean of all powerful pieces, leaving him only pawns to manipulate. He agonized over who would inherit his estate, and endlessly dreaded a lonely dotage. He considered petitioning the king to allow him to move Vanze up from priest son to heir. But he was too much of a traditionalist to relish that idea. The next day would find him declaring that he would look among my cousins for a likely heir, a young man he could bring to Widevale and raise as a fit heir.

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  In between such ranting, he would fashion various fates for Yaril. His only daughter was precious to him now, he told her, for whoever wed her would be his sole ally. He would find an heir son for her, perhaps even an old noble’s son. Then the next night he would tearfully say she was all he had left, and that he could never allow her to wed for she must look after him in his failing years.

  One evening after a late game of cards she confided to me that she was weary to death of those discussions. I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, in all rightness, Cecile still has a duty to our family. She should come back here, and take the burden of running the household off your shoulders. ”

  Yaril looked at me as if I were mad. “You aren’t serious?”

  “She is Rosse’s widow. We made a bride-gift to her family. She is a Burvelle now. ”

  “Well, she can just be a Burvelle in her mother’s house! Prissy, primpy Cecile in charge of my life and our home? Afraid-of-her-shadow Cecile, always wanting to chop off some poor bird’s head so her scary old gods won’t do something awful to her? It was bad enough when Mother was alive to keep her in check. But to have her put over me, in my own home? No. No, Nevare. Leave her where she is, and good riddance. ”

  I’d had no idea that Yaril had felt such animosity toward Cecile. I’m afraid it amused me. I grinned as I said, “So. I see now why Carsina was chosen for me; she was someone you are already friends with. Less potential for fireworks in the family. ”

  I had meant it as a jest, but it was the first time Carsina’s name had been mentioned between us. Yaril narrowed her eyes at me. “That bitch!” she said with great feeling.

  I was shocked. “Carsina? I thought you were friends. ”

  She scowled. “As did I. I thought keeping her friendship was the most important thing in the world, more important than my brother, even. I turned my back on you, to commiserate with her about how you had embarrassed her at Rosse’s wedding. I supported her in insisting that your marriage agreement be dissolved. I was so shallow, Nevare. But she served me as I deserved. No sooner was her family free of their commitment to you than she set her sights on Remwar! She knew how I felt about him! She knew that he had promised me that he’d ask his father to talk to our father as soon as he could get him into a good mood! But the last I heard, he was finding every excuse to visit her family as often as he could. ”

  My mind had snagged on her earlier words. I scarcely noticed what she said about Remwar. “Our marriage agreement is dissolved? How long ago did that happen?”

  She looked at me with sudden pity. “Didn’t Father speak to you about it? He told the family at dinner one night, soon after Rosse’s wedding. He was stiff with fury, but said he could not blame them. He’d said you’d eaten yourself out of a career and a marriage…Oh, Nevare, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to speak of it that way. I just wish that, well, that you’d never let yourself go this way. Why did you do it? The cavalla was what you wanted more than anything else. ”

  “I didn’t do it. ” I looked at her. We sat in the netted darkness of our pavilion. The oil lamp on the table made a small orb of light around us. A light breeze carried the scent of the night-blooming flowers in the garden and the greener smell of the pond. It suddenly seemed that we two were alone in the whole wide world, and perhaps we were. I began talking, and found myself telling my little sister the entire tale. She listened in rapt wonder, her eyes wide, and when I reached the moment where I stepped off the cliff’s edge at Dewara’s urging, she shivered and reached across the table to take my hand.

  By the time I finished the account, she had moved to sit close beside me as if I were telling ghost stories. She heard of my dual days at the academy, about Epiny’s séance and her concerns for me, and of Dark Evening and the Specks’ Dust Dance. I told her of my final battle with Tree Woman, and how the Spindle had stopped dancing and even how I had found Dewara and how he had died. She listened with rapt attention. In the silence that followed, as frogs and crickets creaked and peeped, she took a breath. “Are you making this up, Nevare?” she asked me. “Are you teasing me?”

  “Yaril, I swear I am not,” I said with great feeling. “As I have said, so it has been. The changes in my body are not my fault, and I do not believe there is anything I can do to change myself back, unless I resort to seeking out a magic user. And so far, that has availed me little. ”

  Her reaction completely surprised me. “I must meet our Cousin Epiny! She sounds amazing. May I write to her?”

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  “I’m sure she’d be delighted to hear from you,” I said weakly. “I’ll give you her address tonight. ”

  Yaril seemed much more entranced with Epiny’s role and adventurous spirit than with what had befallen me. Yet it comforted me that she had completely become my ally again. I think that Yaril and I could have gone on like that indefinitely. I could have immersed myself in the running of the estate and forgotten my military ambitions. Yaril was both competent and content in her position. We had not forgotten our sorrows and loss, but we were healing, we two.

  But one night, without warning, my father descended to join us at dinner. He came alone, pushing open the heavy wooden door to the dining room and clinging to it as he tottered in. For all the weakness that showed in his bearing, he had still prepared for this moment. He was immaculately dressed and shaved, with his hair carefully combed. Strange that it was only when he entered the dining room, properly attired for the evening meal, that I suddenly saw that the plague had aged him. He was thinner than he had been and his hair had gone grayer. As he approached the table, Yaril and I were as guiltily silent as children caught in mischief. He dragged out his chair at the head of the table, scraping it across the polished floor with obvious effort, and then seated himself at the place that Yaril had always had set for him.

  Yaril was the first to recover. She took up the small bell beside her plate. “Father! I’m so glad to see you well enough to join us. Shall I ring for soup for you?”

  He had been staring at me in a flat, ominous way. Now he turned his gaze on her. “That is what one usually does when one comes to table. One eats. Yes, dear daughter, by all means, send for some soup for the old, useless man. ”

  Yaril’s mouth hung open. The color drained from her face. Then she took an audible breath and rang her bell. When the servant came in, she said calmly, “My father has come down to dinner. Please find him a soup to begin with; he will not enjoy the cream one. ”

  The man bobbed a bow to her. “I have a beef stock simmering. ”

  “That would be fine. Thank you. ”

  My father was silent through this interchange, and held his peace until the door had swung shut behind the serving man. Then he glared at us. “Well. Isn’t this a pretty picture? Playing lord and lady of the manor, are we?”

  I kept my cowardly mouth shut. Yaril didn’t. Color came back to her face as two spots of pink on her cheeks. “We have done our best to go on, Father, yes. Does that offend you? We thought that you would be pleased that we had kept the estate operating and the household functioning during your convalescence. ”

  “While the cat’s away, the mice will play,” he replied heavily. As if he had said something of great import, he nodded around the table, surveying us and then each of the empty chairs in turn. Then he pierced me with a stare. “I k
now more than you think I do, Nevare, you great fat slug. Do you think I’ve lain idle in my bed up there, day after day, while you trotted about playing the great man, giving orders, writing notes on my money, and changing things without my permission? No. I have not! I’ve been out and about, in the wee hours of the dawn when sleep runs away from an old man such as I. A few of the servants retain their loyalty to me. They’ve told me all your mischief. I’ve seen your fancy ferry docks. And I’ve marked how you put your mother and my heir and your older sister in the ground, right next to the common servants! I’ve seen your little party tent in the garden. I know what you’ve been up to, and I see the path that you’re trying to lead Yaril down.

  “The city corrupted you. I sent them an honest soldier son, well schooled and ready to serve the king. And what do they send back to me? A swine, bursting out of his uniform, corrupt to the spine! I had the bad conduct reports from Colonel Stiet. He saw you as a coward and a sneak. Fool that I was, I was outraged that he could suggest such a thing. ” He shook his head. “Colonel Stiet was right. The city tempted you and you fell. Stuffing your body with food. Fornicating with savages. Eschewing the role that the good god had given you. And why? I could not fathom why. I had raised you well. I had believed that you’d set your heart on the same lofty goals I had for you. But now I know. I’ve had plenty of time to puzzle it out, lying in my bed and staring at the wall. The corruption runs deep, doesn’t it, Nevare? Corruption, greed, and jealousy.

  “You saw those desperate nobles flaunt the will of the good god. When their heirs died, they raised their soldier sons to that position. You became jealous of Rosse, jealous of your brother and his place. You wanted to be the heir! So you made yourself unfit to soldier, came home, and waited, hoping for just such a disaster as befell us. And now you think you will dump his body in the ground and rise up to take his place. Don’t you? Don’t you?”

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  His diatribe took my breath away. I looked at Yaril to see what she thought. Her face was white with shock. Another mistake.

  “See how deep the corruption runs! Your father asks you a question, and instead of replying honestly, you secretly confer with each other. How long have you plotted against me, Nevare? For months? Or for years? How deep have you pulled Yaril into your schemes?”

  “He’s mad,” I said softly. I honestly believed that he was. Yaril’s eyes widened and she shook her head, a wordless warning. I should have bowed my head and apologized to my father. Instead, I met his eyes. They were fairly bulging from his head with outrage.

  “I loved Rosse, Father. I have never plotted against you. I have never wanted any future save the one that the good god decreed, to be your soldier son. All I have done since Rosse’s death, I have done as a placeholder, a steward of estates that will never belong to me. Is that not the duty of a soldier son, Father, as you taught it to me? That in times of disaster, he comes home from serving the king to protect his father’s or his brother’s holdings? I have made no claim of ownership or authority. All that I ordered, I did in your name. If you review the ledgers and speak to your overseers, you will find that I have run the estate exactly according to the example you set me. ”

  A servant, silent as a ghost, flowed into the room, set a bowl of steaming soup before my father, and drifted out again. The silence held until the door swung shut behind him. Then I spoke again before my father could.

  “As for the graves of Mother and Rosse and Elisi…yes. It is as you say. If you had given me other orders, I would have done differently, according to your will. I did seek you out, I did speak to you, but you did not reply. And so I buried them simply. I did not think to separate them from the humble folk who had served them so well in life. That I buried them quickly was not lack of respect but necessity. Their bodies were…Father, I had to bury them immediately. By the time Duril freed me from my locked room, they were…well, you were there. You know. ” I glanced at Yaril, imploring her silence. I had kept from her that her mother’s body had lain unburied for days, decomposing into her bedding. She did not need to hear that Elisi had died reaching for water, unattended by family or servant. It was hard enough for me to know those things. I would not inflict them on my sister. I looked at him evenly, waiting for him to admit that what I said was true.

  He stared flatly back at me. “I was ill. You didn’t say a word to me about the graves. I trusted you, Nevare. I trusted you to do what was right. ”

  “I did my best, Father! The servants had fled. Those who remained were weak or still sick. I did my best to step up and take command of the situation. ”

  “You wrapped them in blankets and tumbled them into their graves. You didn’t even trouble with coffins. You gave your mother’s body to the worms, as if she were some pauper found in the gutter. You held no prayers, you made no offerings. They don’t even have stones to mark them!

  “You shoved them in the earth to be forgotten. And then you and your sister proceeded to enjoy yourselves, to take for yourselves what had belonged to your betters. ”

  I glanced at Yaril. I had heard her gasp for breath several times as my father painted his ugly images into her mind. She was shaking. Anger flooded me at what he was doing to her. “Trusted me? Trusted me? You left me locked in my room to starve! I went days without food or water, and no one gave a thought to me. If Sergeant Duril hadn’t come looking for my body, I’d be dead, too. Would that have pleased you?”

  He looked back at me, his eyes as flat as a fish’s. Then he turned to Yaril and said, “He’s lying. He’s obviously lying. Does he look to you as if he has been starved? He’s trying to turn you against me, Yaril. He wants you to agree with him, to say I’m mad. Then he could petition the king to take control of the estate. And then he’d find a way to have himself declared heir. ”

  Yaril had bunched her napkin up in her hands. With both hands, she held it up before her mouth. She was shaking as if we’d doused her with cold water. I could barely understand her words. “Stop this. Stop!” She sounded as if she couldn’t catch her breath. “I don’t know anything. I don’t want anything except for this to stop. Stop fighting!” She leapt up from her chair, took two steps toward the door, and then collapsed, weeping, on the floor. I was shocked. She had seemed so strong, so recovered of late. I had not guessed how close she was to breaking. She tried to rise as I stood up. When she could not stand, she tried futilely to escape by crawling toward the door.

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  I hurried to her. Awkwardly, I went down on one knee and then, with an effort, raised us both. She trembled in my grasp, and sobs shook her with each breath she took. Her eyes were closed. Her hands still gripped her napkin convulsively. My arm around her shoulders held her upright. I spoke flatly. “I am taking my sister to her room. She is overcome. You have judged me wrongly, Father, and judged Yaril even more unjustly. We have been nothing but loyal and devoted to our family throughout the hardship. We are all you have left. Why do you want to turn us against each other?”

  We were nearly at the dining room door when he let fly his last volley of barbed words.

  “I know why you want her good favor, Nevare. I know why you coddle the sister you earlier ignored. You know that the man she marries may very well be your last refuge when you are old and need a shelter for your fat and doddering years. You know you won’t find it with me, don’t you? Because I disown you. I know everything you’ve done, every disgraceful deed: posturing about my Landing, pretending to be a proper soldier, giving orders, and swaggering about. Do you think I haven’t heard of your drunken carousing in my Landing? I know how you shamed my name there, drinking with peasants and whores! You ruined my dreams for you! You are nothing to me. Nothing! Nothing!”

  At his words, Yaril broke free from my grasp. She fled from the room. I turned to face him. I drew myself up tall and straight and met his gaze. “As you command me, sir,” I said coldly. Deliberately, I saluted him.

/>   It threw him into frenzy. “You great sack of blubber! How dare you salute me! You’ll never be a soldier. You’ll never be anything. You’re nothing! Nothing! I take back my name from you! I take back from you your right to say you’re my son. ”

  His words should have horrified me and frozen me with terror. Instead I was flooded with a sensation that was now becoming too familiar. The magic roiled in my blood and rejoiced as it spoke. “Take it all back and welcome to it, old man. It has been years since I belonged to you. Take care of yourself. I won’t be around to do that anymore. I’ve a destiny to fulfill, and it isn’t here. ”

  I cannot explain the sense of destiny I felt when I said those words. I felt power shimmer all around me. No task was beyond my ability to do. There was no anger in my voice. I stated my thoughts calmly, and when I looked at the gaunt old man at the head of the table, he was suddenly no longer my father. He was thin and querulous and entirely bereft of authority over me. All this time, I’d thought I’d needed him. But the opposite was true. He’d needed me to fulfill his dreams, and when I had grown fat, I’d taken that from him. I didn’t need him. I had a life of my own, and it called to me.

  As I turned to leave the room, he lifted his soup bowl and banged it on the table at me, like a thwarted child. “Get out of my house! Get out! Get out!”

  He was still shouting those words, over and over, when I let the door close behind me. Yaril was standing frozen outside the dining room, her hands knotted into fists and curled against her chest. She looked as if she could not breathe. “Come with me,” I said, and when she did not move, I stooped and lifted her bodily. She whimpered like a baby and curled up in my arms. It was awkward to carry her because of my own bulk, but at least I did not lack for strength. Her weight was nothing to me as I bore her up the stairs and to her room. I managed to get the door open, and only bumped her head lightly on the door frame as I carried her in. I set her down on her bed. She curled into a tighter ball there, and sobbed harder than ever.

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