Home > The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2)(8)

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2)(8)
Patrick Rothfuss

But tonight was the exception to the rule. As I strolled through the second tier I spotted her walking with a tall, dark-haired gentleman. I changed my path through the tables so I would intercept them casually.

Denna spotted me half a minute later. She gave a bright, excited smile and took her hand off the gentleman’s arm, motioning me closer.

The man at her side was proud as a hawk and handsome, with a jawline like a cinder brick. He wore a shirt of blindingly white silk and a richly dyed suede jacket the color of blood. Silver stitching. Silver on the buckle and the cuff. He looked every bit the Modegan gentleman. The cost of his clothes, not even counting his rings, would have paid my tuition for a solid year.

Denna was playing the part of his charming and attractive companion. In the past I had seen her dressed much the same as myself: plain clothes meant for hard wear and travel. But tonight she wore a long dress of green silk. Her dark hair curled artfully around her face and tumbled down her shoulders. At her throat was an emerald pendant shaped like a smooth teardrop. It matched the color of the dress so perfectly that it couldn’t be coincidence.

I felt a little shabby by comparison. More than a little. Every piece of clothing I owned in the world amounted to four shirts, two sets of pants, and a few sundries. All of it secondhand and threadbare to some degree. I was wearing my best tonight, but I’m sure you understand when I say my best was not particularly fine.

The one exception was my cloak, Fela’s gift. It was warm and wonderful, tailored for me in green and black with numerous pockets in the lining. It wasn’t elegant by any measure, but it was the finest thing I owned.

As I approached, Denna stepped forward and held out her hand for me to kiss, the gesture poised, almost haughty. Her expression was composed, her smile polite. To the casual observer she looked every bit the genteel lady being gracious to a poor young musician.

All except her eyes. They were dark and deep, the color of coffee and chocolate. Her eyes were dancing with amusement, full of laughter. Standing behind her, the gentleman gave a bare hint of a frown when she offered me her hand. I didn’t know what game Denna was playing, but I could guess my part.

So I bent over her hand, kissing it lightly in a low bow. I had been trained in courtly manners at an early age, so I knew what I was doing. Anyone can bend at the waist, but a good bow takes skill.

This one was gracious and flattering, and as I pressed my lips to the back of her hand I flared my cloak to one side with a delicate flick of my wrist. The last was the difficult bit, and it had taken me several hours of careful practice in the bathhouse mirror to get the motion to look sufficiently casual.

Denna made a curtsey graceful as a falling leaf and stepped back to stand beside the gentleman. “Kvothe, this is Lord Kellin Vantenier. Kellin, Kvothe.”

Kellin eyed me up and down, forming his full opinion of me more quickly than you can draw a short, sharp breath. His expression became dismissive, and he gave me a nod. I’m no stranger to disdain, but I was surprised how much this particular bit stung me.

“At your service, my lord.” I made a polite bow and shifted my weight so my cloak fell away from my shoulder, displaying my talent pipes.

He was about to look away with practiced disinterest when his eye snagged on the bright piece of silver. It was nothing special in terms of jewelry, but here it was significant. Wilem was right: at the Eolian, I was one of the gentry.

And Kellin knew it. After a heartbeat of consideration, he returned my bow. It was barely more than a nod, really. Just low enough to be polite. “Yours and your family’s,” he said in perfect Aturan. His voice was deeper than mine, a warm bass with enough of a Modegan accent to lend it a slight musical cant.

Denna inclined her head in his direction. “Kellin has been showing me my way around a harp.”

“I am here to win my pipes,” he said, his deep voice filled with certainty.

When he spoke, women at the surrounding tables turned to look in his direction with hungry, half-lidded eyes. His voice had the opposite effect on me. To be both rich and handsome was bad enough. But to have a voice like honey over warm bread on top of that was simply inexcusable. The sound of it made me feel like a cat grabbed by the tail and rubbed backward with a wet hand.

I glanced at his hands. “So you’re a harper?”

“Harpist,” he corrected stiffly. “I play the Pendenhale. King of instruments.”

I pulled in half a breath, then closed my mouth. The Modegan great harp had been the king of instruments five hundred years ago. These days it was an antique curiosity. I let it pass, avoiding the argument for Denna’s sake. “Will you be trying your luck tonight?” I asked.

Kellin’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There will be nothing of luck involved when I play. But no. Tonight I am enjoying my lady Dinael’s company.” He lifted Denna’s hand to his lips and gave it an absentminded kiss. He looked around at the murmuring crowd in a proprietary way, as if he owned them. “I will be in worthy company here, I think.”

I glanced at Denna, but she was avoiding my eyes. Her head tilted to the side as she toyed with an earring previously hidden in her hair, a tiny teardrop emerald that matched the pendant at her throat.

Kellin’s eyes flickered over me again. My ill-fitting clothes. My hair, too short to be fashionable, too long to be anything other than wild. “And you are... a piper?”

The least expensive instrument. “Pipist,” I said lightly. “But no. I favor the lute.”

His eyebrows went up. “You play court lute?”

My smile stiffened a bit despite my best efforts. “Trouper’s lute.”

“Ah!” he said, laughing as if things suddenly made sense. “Folk music!”

I let that pass as well, though less easily than before. “Do you have seats yet?” I asked brightly. “Several of us have taken a table below with a good view of the stage. You’re welcome to join us.”

“The lady and I already have a table in the third circle.” Kellin nodded in Denna’s direction. “I much prefer the company above.”

Outside his field of vision, Denna rolled her eyes at me.

I kept a straight face and made another polite bow to him, barely more than a nod. “I won’t delay you then.”

I turned to Denna. “My lady. Might I call on you some time?”

She sighed, looking every bit the put-upon socialite, except for her eyes, which were still laughing at all the ridiculous formality of the exchange. “I’m sure you understand, Kvothe. My schedule is quite full for the next several days. But you could pay a visit near the end of the span if you wish. I’ve taken rooms at the Grey Man.”

“You’re too kind,” I said, and gave her a much more earnest bow than the one I had given Kellin. She rolled her eyes at me this time.

Kellin held out his arm, turning his shoulder to me in the process, and the two of them walked off into the crowd. Watching them together, moving gracefully through the throng, it would be easy to believe they owned the place, or were perhaps thinking of buying it to use as a summer home. Only old nobility move with that easy arrogance, knowing deep in their guts that everything in the world exists only to make them happy. Denna was faking it marvelously, but for Lord Kellin Brickjaw it was as natural as drawing breath.

I watched until they were halfway up the stairs to the third circle. That’s where Denna stopped and put a hand to her head. Then she looked around at the floor, her expression anxious. The two of them spoke briefly and she pointed up the stairs. Kellin nodded and climbed out of sight.

On a hunch, I looked down at the floor and spotted a gleam of silver where Denna had been standing near the railing. I moved and stood over it, forcing a pair of Cealdish merchants to detour around me.

I pretended to watch the crowd below until Denna came close and tapped me on the shoulder. “Kvothe,” she said anxiously. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I seem to have lost an earring. Would you be a dear and help me look for it? I’m sure I had it on me just a moment ago.”

I agreed, and soon we were enjoying a moment of privacy, decorously searching the floorboards with our heads close together. Luckily, Denna’s dress was in the Modegan style, flowing and loose around the legs. If it had been slit up the side according to the current fashion of the Commonwealth, the sight of her crouching on the floor would have been scandalous.

“God’s body,” I muttered. “Where did you find him?”

Denna chuckled low in her throat. “Hush.You’re the one who suggested I learn my way around a harp. Kellin is quite a good teacher.”

“The Modegan pedal harp weighs five times as much as you do,” I said. “It’s a parlor instrument.You’d never be able to take one on the road.”

She stopped pretending to look for her earring and gave me a pointed look. “And who’s to say I won’t ever have a parlor to harp in?”

I looked back to the floor and gave as much of a shrug as I could manage. “It’s good enough for learning, I suppose. How are you liking it so far?”

“It’s better than the lyre,” she said. “I can already see that. I can barely play ‘Squirrel in the Thatch,’ though.”

“Is he any good?” I gave her a sly smile. “With his hands, I mean.”

Denna flushed a bit and looked for a second as if she would swat at me. But she remembered her decorum in time and settled for narrowing her eyes instead. “You’re awful,” she said, “Kellin has been a perfect gentleman.”

“Tehlu save us all from perfect gentlemen,” I said.

She shook her head. “I meant it in the literal sense,” she said. “He’s never been out of Modeg before. He’s like a kitten in a coop.”

“So you’re Dinael now?” I asked.

“For now. And for him,” she said, looking at me sideways with a small quirk of a smile. “From you I still like Denna best.”

“That’s good to know,” I said, then lifted my hand off the floor, revealing the smooth emerald teardrop of an earring. Denna made a show of discovering it, holding it up to catch the light. “Ah! Here we are!”

I stood and helped her to her feet. She brushed her hair back from her shoulder and leaned toward me. “I’m all thumbs with these things,” she said. “Would you mind?”

I stepped toward her and stood close as she handed me the earring. She smelled faintly of wildflowers. But beneath that she smelled like autumn leaves. Like the dark smell of her own hair, like road dust and the air before a summer storm.

“So what is he?” I said softly. “Someone’s second son?”

She gave a barely perceptible shake of her head, and a strand of her hair fell down to brush the back of my hand. “He’s a lord in his own right.”

“Skethe te retaa van,” I swore. “Lock up your sons and daughters.”

Denna laughed again, quietly. Her body shook as she fought to hold it in.

“Hold still,” I said as I gently took hold of her ear.

Denna drew a deep breath and let it out again, composing herself. I threaded the earring through the lobe of her ear and stepped away. She lifted one hand to check it, then stepped back and gave a curtsey. “Thank you kindly for all your help.”

I bowed to her again. It wasn’t as polished as the bow I’d given her before, but it was more honest. “I am at your service, my lady.”

Denna smiled warmly as she turned to go, her eyes laughing again.

I finished exploring the second tier for the sake of form, but Threpe didn’t seem to be around. Not wanting to risk the awkwardness of a second encounter with Denna and her lordling, I decided to skip the third tier entirely.

Sim had the lively look he gets around his fifth drink. Manet was slouched low in his chair, eyes half-lidded, his mug resting comfortably on the swell of his belly. Wil looked the same as ever, his dark eyes unreadable.

“Threpe’s nowhere to be found,” I said as I took my seat. “Sorry.”

“That’s too bad,” Sim said. “Has he had any luck finding you a patron yet?”

I shook my head bitterly. “Ambrose has threatened or bribed every noble within a hundred miles of here. They’ll have nothing to do with me.”

“Why doesn’t Threpe take you on himself?” Wilem asked. “He likes you well enough.”

I shook my head. “Threpe’s already supporting three other musicians. Four really, but two of them are a married couple.”

“Four?” Sim said, horrified. “It’s a wonder he can still afford to eat.”

Wil cocked his head curiously, and Sim leaned forward to explain. “Threpe’s a count. But his holdings aren’t really that extensive. Supporting four players on his income is a little . . . extravagant.”

Wil frowned. “Drinks and strings can’t amount to much.”

“A patron’s responsible for more than that.” Sim began to count items off on his fingers. “There’s the writ of patronage itself. Then he provides room and board for his players, a yearly wage, a suit of clothes in his family’s colors—”

“Two suits of clothing, traditionally,” I interjected. “Every year.” Growing up in the troupe, I never appreciated the livery Lord Greyfallow had given us. But these days I couldn’t help but imagine how much my wardrobe would be improved by two new sets of clothing.

Simmon grinned as a serving boy arrived, leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for the glasses of blackberry brand set in front of each of us. Sim raised his glass in a silent toast and drank a solid swallow. I raised my glass in return, as did Wilem, though it obviously pained him. Manet remained motionless, and I began to suspect he had dozed off.

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