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In my youth, I’d often been ill, for though long days of work in the forest’s clean air had left me stronger and more robust than I’d ever expected to become, yet did I have the body of a child, and the associated vulnerabilities. One of my fondest memories was of lying in bed, shaking with a fever’s chill, while my father heaped woolen sheets atop me, fed the fire until the sweat sprang out upon his forehead, and sang until his voice grew hoarse. I suppose it says much that I look back upon this with fondness.
When I came back to myself this time, it was to find myself swaddled in a soft, warm bed, though with no fire burning nearby and no quiet music to soothe me. Nonetheless, even though the rough woolens that swaddled me and held in the warmth made my bare skin itch, I was so comfortable in all other ways that I couldn’t bring myself to care. I wiggled my toes for the joy of the sensation and savored the luxury of a child in bed in the morning with the house still asleep and no work waiting. I opened an eye, and found myself in an unpeopled room with rows of cots lining the walls. The infirmary.
I lay there for a time, watching a spider weaving its web high up in the raftered ceiling as I listened to the muted sounds of a castle functioning smoothly in the midst of its daily routine. The ache in my head was still there, imperceptible for so long as I moved cautiously and kept my gaze from roaming; but if I forgot and moved my eyes swiftly, pain surged as if my head were being split open with a hatchet. Empty as the room was, there was little to engage my attention, and even the spider moved beyond my sight. After a while, the simple pleasures of warmth, light, and a lack of pain eased me into sleep. I have dim memories of dreaming, but I rarely remember my dreams, and these were no different, remaining hidden at depths where my conscious mind cannot retrieve them.
The touch of a cool hand woke me, and I raised my hands to clear the sleep from my eyes. My arms were weak and light in the way they’d always felt after childhood fevers, but they responded willingly enough. The man sitting beside my bed was Orgrim, his seamed face as kind as his eyes were hard. “I trust you’re well, friend Morley? It seems you had an accident, and I was worried for your sake.”
I tried to talk, realized with a performer’s instinct that my voice would break, and cleared my throat instead. The pain that answered in my head was enough to blind me. “No accident,” I replied when my vision returned and my throat felt clear enough for talk. “Someone took exception to my behavior at dinner last night and chose to teach me a lesson.”
His finger pressed my lips shut. “Later, Morley, later. Console yourself with the thought that the malefactor shall regret having interfered with my plans for you.” He noticed my reaction at his vengeful look, and changed the topic. “There is little time remaining to us. I have consulted certain auguries, and tonight must be when we act.” He failed to notice the incongruity of his remark, and carried on, unperturbed. “Listen carefully. We must meet some hours before midnight that I may invoke the change we spoke of. The crypt should be a private enough place.”
I fought down the instinctive reaction that location awoke in me, for I had no desire to return there so soon; nonetheless, excitement at the possibility of what he promised helped me master myself, as did my fear at the pain any sudden movement might awaken in my head. I’d regained enough of myself to attempt a jest. “Midnight in the crypt? Perhaps I should bring a virgin to sacrifice? You’ve left me little enough time to find one.” The jest would have been better spoken in a concerned voice, but that was beyond me, so I let the words carry the weight of the irony instead.
He pursed his lips in displeasure, and I fell silent. “This is no time to be facetious, Morley. The timing is of more import than you could understand, and the location is mere convenience; if you know of anywhere as private, I would willingly listen to your suggestion.” I remained silent. “But to be polite: no, you need bring no virgins, merely your own self. Be glad that the practice of my kind of magic requires no such appurtenances.” I felt a sudden cold at the way he said that, myths and scare-tales of dark magics conjuring themselves for my mind to dwell upon. I hesitated, unsure, and he frowned at my obvious doubt.
“Come now. Despite appearances, you are no child, and should place no stock in tales told to scare children. My profession is less distasteful than that of the mercenary who kills for the price of a handful of coins, for no lives shall be ended to earn my pay.” He reached within his cloak, withdrew a small crystal vial, and thrust it uncorked before my mouth. A stained ivory ring, pallid on his hand, was ominous in the context of the proposed location of our meeting.
“Drink this. It will hasten your recovery enough for you to be a conscious and willing participant tonight.” I drank with only a slight hesitation, gagging at the oily feel and the mustiness on my tongue. Then I brightened and sat up, the pain instantly gone from my head and a feeling of vigor creeping back into my abused muscles. I frowned at him, and again he anticipated my question.
“Fear not, you would have no objection to any of the ingredients. But let it be a sign to you that magic can produce more than just ill, its reputation notwithstanding. Now listen, and don’t interrupt me again, for someone comes and I must be gone before she arrives.” He whispered further directions concerning our rendezvous, made me repeat them, then rose in a single swift movement. At that moment, there came the sound of the door opening and my eyes were drawn in that direction, mercifully without the pain that had greeted such a drastic motion scant minutes earlier. I saw a vague movement at the corner of my vision, and though I turned my gaze in that direction, I was too late. The old man was gone without a trace, the crystal flask with him, and there was no evidence he’d ever been here other than the clarity still spreading in soothing waves through my head. As I puzzled over his disappearance, a soft hand fell upon my shoulder and the voice of Bram’s wife, Lady Alison, sounded in my ear.
“Well, Morley, it’s good to see you conscious again.” Her voice was cheerful and light, but there was concern in her eyes as she hooked a stool with one foot and drew it to my bedside. “How are you feeling?”
I watched her for a moment, repressing a smile of welcome until I could manage one that wouldn’t look quite so appalling. I shook my head. “No pain,” I replied, marveling that it was true. “My... doctor... has done a most excellent job on me. In fact, I think I could leave this bed right now.” I started to rise, the lightness gone from my limbs, then fell back, realizing in that instant I was naked as a babe.
“Or could,” I added, “were I alone. A pair of trousers, among other things, would make me more confident of my ability to depart gracefully and with some dignity.”
A look of puzzlement crossed her face, then she laughed delightedly—and delightfully—when she caught my meaning. “I’ll see to that at once. When you’re dressed, if you still feel well enough, come and visit. Milord Husband commanded me to fetch you so you can meet our family.”
“Yes.” She smiled charmingly, the brief hint of tension dissolving that easily. “He labors under the burden of an illusion that he has some control over matters domestic. Let’s keep the truth our little secret.”
“He would not be the first husband to hold that opinion,” I replied with a smile. “Very well, you have my word I shall make no effort to disabuse him of the notion.” We laughed, enjoying our shared secret, and it was a warm feeling indeed. She left before that warmth faded, leaving me with a wave of her delicate hand. I lay back, contented, letting a relaxed smile spread. For a moment, I let thoughts of Orgrim fade before the sweet memory of her laughter. Then I pondered my incredible luck, that soon I would be normal, that my health had come back so rapidly, and that just maybe this would mark a new beginning for me.
When my clothes arrived some time later, borne by a skeptical Court physician, I dressed in a hurry, ignoring his distaste and ill-concealed surprise at my rapid recovery. I thanked him sincerely for his help, repressing the while a grin at what he didn’t know, and left the room before he could think to question me further. In the near-empty streets outside the palace, I strode along to meet my new friends, hoping this would be a chance to belong somewhere for the second time in my life. It was not an opportunity I could afford to miss, whatever the remainder of that day held for me.
Bram was one of the King’s senior advisors and an unofficial ambassador to the West. Though not a full ambassador, for he was foreign born, he could still have claimed a mansion as a reward for his part in the recent war. He hadn’t done so. Instead, he’d turned down that lavish reward in favor of a smaller building, less ostentatious and farther from the palace. After our encounter with the boar, I’d done some surreptitious research on the man and found much to my liking. For one thing, he was well liked by the commoners for his role in the increasingly legendary defeat of Amelior. His charity and defense of the commoners hadn’t hurt his standing either. But things balance, for he was not well liked by the old nobility, who resented the example this foreigner set more than his origins. There was another reason he’d not been granted full ambassadorial status, but no one had been willing to tell me why; his enemies knew, but I wasn’t eager to flirt with them long enough to learn. Nonetheless, one could take the measure of a man by the enemies he made and the friends he kept, and both spoke well of Bram.
Despite the stone house’s distance from the palace, it lay in a pleasant part of the city. Smaller than a mansion, it was nonetheless a larger home than any I’d lived in before coming to Ankur. It was nondescript but attractive, with the main building crouched behind a low wall and a small stable nestled up against one side. There was no armed guard outside the gate, but the jagged barrier atop the outward-sloping upper lip of the wall suggested none was necessary. From what I could see of the building’s design, looking over the top of that wall as I descended the gentle slope towards the house, I suspected the presence of an atrium. The home was an appropriate metaphor for the man given the delicate political dance Bram played with Ankur’s many unfriends, both inside and far beyond the palace walls: formidable barriers without, but a warm welcome within. Bram himself had struck me as soft, but it was the softness of a dancer, belying a surprising strength.
I approached the sturdy gatehouse and knocked, preparing myself for a short wait, but my approach had been expected and the small viewport slid aside. Calm eyes narrowed as they appraised me, and before I could announce myself, the port slammed shut, echoed by the rasp of heavy bolts being drawn. The door opened, and a plainly dressed youth still in his mid-teens swept me a courtly bow, though without taking his eyes off me for an instant, and bade me enter. The gate shut behind me and he shot the bolts before the echoes had faded.
The gravel path leading to the door was neatly raked, and stones rolled beneath my feet, but even on the gravel, my escort moved almost too well. My eyes were drawn to telltale bulges beneath his attire that suggested the presence of light armor. Moreover, a long scabbard swung against one hip, a sword’s worn leather grip protruding, and a matching dagger hung on the other. Weaponry held so near to hand, even at home, confirmed my suspicions of enemies at Court. In this light, I reappraised my guide and was no longer surprised at the smoothness and economy of his motion. He was neither a youth nor a household servant, and it wasn’t hard to guess his true profession.
“Lord Bram has good taste in... butlers.” I hesitated on the last word, but if he caught my emphasis, he gave no sign.
“Thank you. This way, Sir.” The floor inside the house’s main door was carpeted in woolen rugs, an interesting concession to luxury. He led me through several sparse but tastefully decorated rooms, past a few closed doors, and on into the atrium whose existence I’d suspected. What I hadn’t guessed at was the beauty of the small garden it concealed. Well tended trees and bushes drew the eye to a small pond, the ground around which was covered by moss and other low-growing plants. On the far side of this miniature forest, still vibrant with the pale green of spring and unobtrusively unnatural, there was a flat stretch of grass upon which a small blanket had been spread. Bram and Alison sat on the blanket, hands clasped and enjoying the peace of the moment. My guide cleared his throat, drawing their attention from each other to us.
“Ah! Morley. Welcome to our humble home.” Bram rose and came to meet me, proffering a hand to be shaken. His grip was firm but not ostentatious, and though I’d not yet seen him bearing a sword, the suggestive calluses were still hard, the product of considerable work.
“Thank you, Milord. But I confess surprise at your invitation.” I kept my voice neutral, but I didn’t meet his eyes lest he should note my eagerness. Diplomats, like witches, are skilled at reading one’s thoughts.
“Not milord, merely Bram. At least, as long as we are here among friends.” I cocked my head at the silent servant, and Bram grinned. “Consider us alone. James is one of the family, right James?”
“Right.” James sounded proud, though perhaps a little embarrassed. I suspected the pride was justified. “Drinks, Bram?”
“And food. Our friend is sadly underfed, which is understandable considering his condition.”
“My condition?” I blurted out.
“Yes,” he replied quietly, placing a hand on my shoulder and guiding me along the garden path. “A hungry, recent patient. I’ve spent enough time at the profession of arms to prefer even field rations to hospital food, and I can offer better than field rations.” Now that he mentioned it, I’d not been hungry since Orgrim’s draught had done its work. But I could feel a certain hollowness beneath my ribs, and his words made it grow hollower still. We sat together on the blanket, Bram settling companionably beside his wife. Alison cast a brief, warm smile at her husband, then at me, and despite myself, I felt a twinge of jealousy.
Bram spoke again before the brief silence could grow awkward. “Well, Morley. As you may suspect, I have called you here for more than social reasons. “You see, Alison told me that you had been surprised and beaten last night.”
“I did no such thing,” she interrupted. “It was your spy network that said so. I did nothing more than goad your conscience.” They frowned at each other, with well-practiced mock irritation.
“I sit corrected,” Bram chuckled. “In either event, I was informed of your ‘accident’ and I have chosen to do something about it, if you are not averse to my intervention.” A response seemed indicated, but I was unsure what to say.
“I’m not sure I follow you, Milord.”
“Bram. Last night’s incident was just one of a long series of such events. A little harsher than usual, but nothing extraordinary.”
From the corner of my eye, I caught a momentary flash of pity from Alison before she mastered herself. Bram went on. “True though that may be, it was unacceptable, and I would halt this behavior. If you accept, I shall have it known that you are under my protection from this moment onwards.”
He paused, waiting and watching my face, and I resettled my weight, testing his words for traces of condescension. An old reflex. “Out of pity, perhaps?” I asked in a low voice, regretting the bitterness that had crept into the words.
His reply was gentle but firm. “Before I knew you, I confess that might have been my sole motive. But as my wife so indiscreetly mentioned, I am nothing if not careful in staying informed. You are skilled and brave, and unless I have misjudged you badly, as quick with a blade as with your wit. What I offer is a place outside my household, yet one that will inform your tormentors where you stand.” A pause, but he held my gaze with no telltale deflection of his eyes. “Should that explanation prove insufficient, consider that you provide an important source of information on the inner doings of the Court, and one I would be wise to benefit from.”
Alison elbowed her husband in the ribs, and her voice was sweetly mocking. “Make no mistake, though, you’ll be out on your backside the moment you misbehave. My husband is a beast at times!”
“But a fair one,” Bram added ruefully, and we laughed together.
As the laughter waned, James reappeared bearing a wooden tray of bread and cheese, glasses balanced amongst the food and a sweating bottle of wine clutched under one arm. Bram allowed the offer to rest for a time while we ate, but never forgot it. Conversation was sparse, for the food was good and our attention was devoted to eating. When the last crusts had been put to rest, James rose with a grin and collected the debris. He departed, leaving the remainder of the wine.
“Well then,” said Alison, brushing the last crumbs from Bram’s clothing. “Shall we consider you one of us, Morley?”
Perhaps it was the wine, but tears blurred my vision at the sweetness of the offer, and I fought hard to keep them from showing. It must have been the wine, a strong western vintage. “How can I say no?” I said around the lump in my throat, watching her face light up and Bram’s watchfulness ease. “But I must say no, nonetheless,” I continued before I could take the words back.
“Why is that?” Bram’s reply was deceptively mild.
My face twisted as I fought to word an answer that wouldn’t offend them. “I guess it’s as simple as being unable to accept charity. Not, you understand, because I think you’re being condescending, because I know you’re not... it’s just...”
“That you’ve depended on yourself for so long that you’re not yet ready to lean on another. That you’ve never been given cause to trust, and you have no reason to do so yet.” Alison’s face showed an understanding born of memory, giving the truth to her words.
“Yes, in part,” I replied. All her reasons were correct, but they only touched on the real reason, the night that lay ahead and the different freedom it promised. “That, and I cannot let my presence bring any trouble upon you. There would be questions asked at Court about why someone other than His Highness had taken responsibility for protecting the King’s Fool.” I added the last to cover the brief pause after my answer.
“That is not a consideration,” replied Bram. “My position at Court is secure.”
“So I see,” I nodded, my gesture taking in the broad-shouldered gardener who’d just emerged from a side passage. A sword hilt projected from a cart full of litter he was trundling across the garden. The man’s eyes were never still, flitting from his path to take in those buildings which overlooked the house.
“Touché!” chuckled Bram. “But I can accept your other reasons even if we quibble over the last one. Let me rephrase our offer. The position shall be yours should you choose to approach us and request it. Until then, let us make the arrangement informal, on the basis of your accepting rewards commensurate with value tendered.”
“An arrangement I am given to understand you have some experience with. Very well. That I can accept.”
I gathered myself to leave, but he had not finished yet. “I thought you might also be interested to learn that Sir Osric disappeared from the Court some time after you were found half-dead in the halls near the crypt. Your incapacity has been accepted as clearing you of any taint of guilt in the matter. But it appears you have other friends at Court you were unaware of.” His eyes narrowed, and I turned away lest he see the thoughts trying to surface. Thoughts of Orgrim’s words as he knelt by my bedside, and the fierce gleam in his eyes as he mentioned payments for deeds done to my person. I shuddered, not trying to hide it from my hosts.
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