Magics promise vlhm 2, p.11

Magic's Promise v(lhm-2, page 11

 part  #2 of  Valdemar (02): Last Herald Mage Series


Magic's Promise v(lhm-2

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  Vanyel had no doubt whatsoever what the boy thought he was offering in return for music lessons. The painful - and very potently sexual - embarrassment was all too plain to his Empathy. Gods, the poor child - Medren wasn't even a temptation. I may be shaych, but - not children. The thought's revolting.

  "Medren," he said very softly, "they warned you to stay away from me, didn't they? And they told you why."

  The boy shrugged. "They said you were shaych. Made all kinds of noises. But hell, you're a Herald, Heralds don't hurt people."

  "I'm shaych, yes," Vanyel replied steadily. "But you - you aren't.''

  "No," the boy said. "But hell, like I said, I wasn't worried. What you could teach me - that's worth anything. And I haven't got much else to repay you with." He finally looked back up into Vanyel's eyes. "Besides, there isn't anything you could do to me that'd be worse than Jervis beating on me once a day. And they all seem to think that's all right."

  Vanyel started. "Jervis? What - what do you mean, Jervis beating on you? Sit, Medren, please."

  "What I said," the boy replied, gingerly pulling a straight-backed chair to him and taking a seat. "I get treated just like the rest of them. Same lessons. Only there's this little problem; I'm not true-born." His tone became bitter. “With eight true-born heirs and more on the way, where does that leave me? Nowhere, that's where. And there's no use in currying favor with me, or being a little easy on me, 'cause I don't have a thing to offer anybody. So when time comes for an example, who gets picked? Medren. When we want a live set of pells to prove a point, who gets beat on? Medren. And what the hell do I have to expect at the end of it, when I'm of age? Squire to one of the true-born boys if I'm lucky, the door if I'm not. Unless I can somehow get good enough to be a minstrel."

  Vanyel's insides hurt as badly as if Medren had punched him there. Gods - His thoughts roiled with incoherent emotions. Gods, he's like I was - he's just like I was - only he doesn't have those thin little protections of rank and birth that I had. He doesn't have a Lissa watching out for him. And he has the Gift, the precious Gift. My gods -

  " 'Course, my mother figures there's another way out," Medren continued, cynically. "Lady Treesa, she figures you've turned down so many girls, she figures she's got about one chance left to cure you. So she told my mother you were all hers, she could do whatever it took to get you. And if my mother could get you so far as to marry her, Lady Treesa swore she'd get Lord Withen to allow it. So my mother figures on getting into your breeches, then getting you to marry her - then to adopt me. She says she figures the last part is the easiest, 'cause she watched you watching me, and she knows how you feel about music and Bards and all. So she wanted me to help."

  Poor Melenna. She just can't seem to realize what she's laying herself open for. “So why are you telling me this?" Vanyel found his own voice sounding incredibly calm considering the pain of past memories, and the ache for this unchildlike child.

  "I don't like traps," Medren said defiantly. "I don't like seeing them being laid, I don't like seeing things in them, and I don't much like being part of the bait. And besides all that, you're - special. I don't want anything out of you that you've been tricked into giving."

  Vanyel rose, and held out his hand. Medren looked at it for a moment, and went a little pale despite his brave words. He looked up at Vanyel with his eyes wide. "You -you want to see my side of the bargain?" he asked tremulously.

  Vanyel smiled. "No, little nephew," he replied. "I'm going to take you to my father, and we're going to discuss your future."

  Withen had a room he called his "study," though it was bare of anything like a book; a small, stone-walled room, windowless, furnished with comfortable, worn-out old chairs Treesa wouldn't allow in the rest of the keep. It was where he brought old cronies to sit beside the fire, drink, and trade tall tales; it was where he went after dinner to stare at the flames and nurse a last mug of ale. That's where Vanyel had expected to find him; and when Vanyel ushered Medren into the stuffy little room, he could tell by his father's stricken expression that Withen was assuming the absolute worst.

  "Father," he said, before Withen could even open his mouth, "do you know who this boy is?"

  Candlelight flickered in his father's eyes as Withen looked at him as if he'd gone insane, but he answered the question. "That's – uh - Medren. Melenna's boy."

  "Melenna and Mekeal's, Father," Vanyel said forcibly. "He's Ashkevron blood, and by that blood, we owe him. Now just how are we paying him? What future does he have?'' Withen started to answer, but Vanyel cut him off. "I'll tell you, Father. None. There are how many wedlock-born heirs here? And how much property? Forst Reach is big, but it isn't that big! Where does that leave the little tagalong bastard when there may not be enough places for the legitimate offspring? What's he going to do? Eke out the rest of his life as somebody's squire? What if he falls in love and wants to marry? What if he doesn't want to be somebody's squire all his life? You've given him the same education and the same wants as the rest of the boys, Father. The same expectations; the same needs. How do you plan on making him content to take a servant's place after being raised like one of the heirs?"

  "I - uh - '

  "Now I'll tell you something else," Vanyel continued without giving him a chance to answer. "This young man is Bardic-Gifted. That Gift is as rare - and as valued in Valdemar - as the one that makes me a Herald. And we Ashkevrons are letting that rare and precious Gift rot here. Now what are we going to do about it?"

  Withen just stared at him. Vanyel waited for him to assimilate what he'd been told. The fire crackled and popped beside him as Withen blinked with surprise. “Bardic-Gifted? Rare? I knew the boy played around with music, but - are you telling me the boy can make a future out of that?”

  "I'll tell you more than that, Father. Medren will be a first-class Bard if he gets the training, and gets it now. A Full Bard, Father. Royalty will pour treasure at his feet to get him to sing for them. He could earn a noble rank, higher than yours. But only if he gets what he needs now. And I mean right now."

  "What?" Withen's brow wrinkled in puzzlement.

  Vanyel could see that he was having a hard time connecting "music" with "earning a noble rank."

  "You mean - send him to Haven? To Bardic Collegium?"

  "That's exactly what I mean, Father," Vanyel said, watching Medren out of the corner of his eye. The boy was in serious danger of losing his jaw, or popping his eyes right out of their sockets. "And I think we should send him as soon as we can spare him an escort - when the harvest is over at the very latest. I will be happy to write a letter of sponsorship to Bard Chadran; if Forst Reach won't cover it, I'm sure my stipend will stretch enough to take care of his expenses."

  That last was a wicked blow, shrewdly designed to awake his father's sense of duty and shame.

  "That won't be necessary, son," Withen said hastily. "Great good gods, it's the least we can do! If - if that's what you want, Medren."

  "What I want?" the boy replied, tears coming to his eyes. "Milord – I - oh, Milord - it's -" He threw himself, kneeling, at Withen's feet.

  "Never mind," Withen said hastily, profoundly embarrassed. "I can see it is. Consider it a fact; we'll send you off to Haven with the Harvest-Tax." The boy made as if to grab Withen's hand and kiss it. Withen waved him off. "No, now, go on with you, boy. Get up, get up! Don't grovel like that, dammit, you're Ashkevron! And don't thank me, I'm just the old fool that was too blind to see what was going on under my nose. Save your thanks for Vanyel."

  Medren got to his feet, clumsy in his adolescent awkwardness, made clumsier by dazed joy. Before the boy could repeat the gesture, Vanyel took him by the shoulders and steered him toward the door.

  "Why don't you go tell your mother about your good news, Medren?" He winked at the boy, and managed to get a tremulous grin out of him. "I'm certain she'll be very surprised."

  That sentence made the grin widen, and take on a certain conspiratorial gleam. Medren nodded, and Vanyel pus
hed him out the door, shutting it tightly behind him.

  He turned back to face Withen, and there was no humor in his face or his heart now.

  "Father-we have to talk."


  What?" Withen asked, his brow wrinkling in per -


  "I said, we have to talk. Now." Vanyel walked slowly and carefully toward his father, exerting every bit of control he possessed to keep his face impassive. "About you. About me. And about some assumptions about me that you keep making."

  He stood just out of arm's length of Withen's chair, struggling to maintain his composure. "When I brought Medren in here, I knew what you were thinking, just looking at your expression."

  The fire flared up, lighting Withen's face perfectly.

  And you’re still thinking it-

  Vanyel came as close as he ever had in his life to exploding, and kept his voice down only by dint of much self-control. It took several moments before he could speak.

  "Dammit, Father, I'm not like that! I don't do things like that! I'm a Herald - and dammit, I'm a decent man - I don't molest little boys! Gods, the idea makes me want to vomit, and that you automatically assumed I had -"

  He was trembling, half in anger, half in an anguished frustration that had been held in check for nearly ten years.

  Withen squirmed, acutely uncomfortable with this confrontation. "Son, I -"

  Vanyel cut him off with an abrupt shake of his head, then held both his hands outstretched toward Withen in entreaty. "Why, Father, why? Why can't you believe what I tell you? What have I ever done to make you think I have no sense of honor? When have I ever been anything other than honest with you?"

  Withen stared at the floor.

  "Look," Vanyel said, grasping at anything to get his point across, "let's turn this around. I know damned good and well you've had other bedpartners than Mother, but do I assume you would try to-to seduce that little-girl chambermaid of hers? Have I looked sideways at you whenever you've been around one of her ladies? So why should you constantly accuse me in your mind - assuming that I would obviously be trying to seduce every susceptible young man and vulnerable little boy in sight?"

  Withen coughed, and flushed crimson.

  He'd probably be angry, Vanyel thought, in a part of his mind somewhere beyond his anguish, except that this frontal assault isn't giving him time to be anything other than embarrassed.

  "You - could use your reputation. As a - the kind of person they write those songs about." Withen flushed even redder. "A hero-worshipping lad would find it hard to-deny you. Might even think it your due and his duty."

  "Yes, Father, that's only too true. Yes, I could use my reputation. Don't think I'm not acutely aware of that. But I won't - would never! Can't you understand that? I'm a Herald. I have a moral obligation that I've pledged myself to by accepting that position."

  By the blankness of Withen's expression, Vanyel guessed he had gone beyond Withen's comprehension of what a "Herald" was. He tried again. "There're more reasons than that; I'm a Thought-senser, Father, did you ever think what that means? The constraints it puts on me? The things I'm open to? It's a harder school of honor than ever Jervis taught. There are no compromises, mind-to-mind. There are no falsehoods; there can't be. A relationship for me has to be one of absolute equals; freely giving, freely sharing-or nothing." Still no flicker of understanding. He used blunter language. "No rape, Father. No unwilling seduction. No lies, no deception. No harm. No one who doesn't already know what he is. No one who hasn't made peace with what he is, and accepted it. No innocents, who haven't learned what they are. No children.''

  Withen looked away, fidgeting a little in his chair. Vanyel moved swiftly to kneel between him and the fire, where Withen couldn't avoid looking at him. "Father - dammit, Father, I care about you. I don't want to make you unhappy, but I can't help what I am."

  "Why, Van?" Withen's voice sounded half - strangled. "Why? What in hell did I do wrong?"

  "Nothing! Everything! I don't know!" Vanyel cried out, his words trembling in the air, a tragic song tortured from the strings of a broken lute. "Why am I Gifted? Why am I anything? Maybe it's something I was born with. Maybe the gods willed it. Maybe it's nothing more than the fact that the only person I'll ever love happened to be born into the same sex body that I was!" Grief knotted his throat and twisted his voice further. "All I know is that I am this way, and nothing is going to change that. And I care for my father, and nothing is going to change that. And if you can't believe in me, in my sense of honor - oh, gods, Father -"

  He got to his feet somehow, and held out his open hands toward Withen in a desperate plea for understanding. "Please, Father - I'm not asking for much. I'm not asking you to do anything. Only to believe that I am a decent human being. Believe in Herald Vanyel if you won't believe in your son. Only - believe; believe that no one will ever come to harm at my hands. And try to understand. Please."

  But there still was no understanding in Withen's eyes. Only uncertainty, and acute discomfort. Vanyel let his hands fall and turned away, defeated. The last dregs of his energy had been burned out, probably for nothing.

  "I - I'm sorry, son-"

  "Never mind," Vanyel said dully, bleakly, walking slowly toward the door. "Never mind. I've lived with it this long, I should be used to it. Listen; I'm going to make you a pledge, since you won't believe me without one. Medren is safe from my advances, Father. Your grandsons are safe. Every damned thing on this holding down to the sheep is safe. All right? You have my damned oath as a damned Herald on it. Will that be enough for you?"

  He didn't wait to hear the answer, but opened the door quickly and shut it behind him.

  He leaned against it, feeling bitterness and hurt knotting his gut, making his chest ache and his head throb. And eleven years' experience as a Herald was all that enabled him to cram that hurt back down into a little corner and slap a lid on it, to fiercely tell the lump in his throat that it was not tears and it would go away. Maybe he would deal with all this later—not now. Not when he was drained dry, and not when he was alone.

  "Heyla, Van!" The voice out of the dark corridor beside him startled him, and he whirled in reaction, his hands reaching for weapons automatically.

  He forced himself to relax and made out who it was.

  Gods—just what I needed.

  "Evening, Meke," he replied; tired, and not bothering to hide it. "What brings you out tonight?"

  Lady Bright,^ that sounds feeble even to me.

  "Oh," Mekeal replied vaguely, moving into the range of the lantern beside the study door, "Things. Just— things. Where were you off to?"

  "Bed." Vanyel knew his reply was brusque, even rude, but it was either that or let Meke watch him fall to pieces. "I'm damned tired, Meke; I've got a lot of rest to catch up on."

  Mekeal nodded, his expression softening a little with honest concern. "You look like hell, Van, if you don't mind my saying so."

  Gods. Not again.

  "The last year hasn't been a good one. Especially not on the Borders."

  "That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about," Mekeal interrupted eagerly, coming so close that Vanyel could see the lantern flames reflected in his eyes. "Listen, can you spare me a little time before you go off to bed? Say a candlemark or so?''

  Vanyel stifled a sigh of exasperation. All right, stupid, you gave him the opening, you have only yourself to blame that he took it. "I suppose so."

  “Great! Come on." Mekeal took Vanyel's elbow and hauled him down the ill - lit corridor, practically running in his eagerness. "You've seen that stud I bought?"

  "From a distance," Vanyel replied cautiously.

  "Well I want you to come have a good look at him, and he really doesn't settle down until well after dark."

  I can believe that.

  They walked rapidly down the hollow-sounding corridor, Mekeal chattering on about his acquisition. Vanyel made a few appropriately conversational sounds, but was far more interested in rees
tablishing his "professional" calm than in anything Meke was saying. Meke was obviously heading for the corridor that led to one of the doors to the stable yard, so Vanyel pulled his arm free and picked up his own pace a little. Might as well get this over with now, while I'm still capable of standing.

  Mekeal obviously had this planned, for when they emerged into the cool darkness and a sky full of stars, Vanyel saw the dim glow of a lantern in the stable across the yard. They crossed the yard at something less than a run, but not for lack of Mekeal's trying to hurry his steps.

  The famous stud had pride of place, first stall by the entrance, by the lantern. Vanyel stared at it; if anything it was worse up close than at a distance.

  Ugly is not the word for this beast.

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