I MANAGED TO BLUFF AND fast-talk my way through the majority of the Maer’s defenses. The Baronet Pettur helped me simply by his presence. Being escorted by a recognizable member of the nobility was enough to get me deep inside Alveron’s estate. After that, he soon outlived his usefulness and I left him behind.
Once he was out of sight I put on my most impatient face, asked a busy servant for directions, and made it all the way to the outer doors of the Maer’s audience chamber before I was stopped by an unassuming man in his middle years. He was portly, with a round face, and despite his fine clothes he looked like a grocer to me.
If not for the several hours I’d spent gathering information in Severen-Low I might have made a terrible mistake and tried to bluff my way past this man, thinking him nothing more than a well-dressed servant.
But this was actually the person I was looking for: the Maer’s manservant, Stapes. Though he looked like a grocer, he had the aura of true authority about him. His manner was quiet and certain, unlike the overbearing, brash one I had used to bully the baronet.
“How can I help you?” Stapes asked. His tone was perfectly polite, but there were other questions lurking beneath the surface of his words. Who are you? What are you doing here?
I brought out Count Threpe’s letter and handed it over with a slight bow. “You would be doing me a great service if you would convey this to the Maer,” I said. “He is expecting me.”
Stapes gave me a cool look, making it perfectly clear that if the Maer had been expecting me, he would have known about it ten days ago. He rubbed his chin as he looked me over, and I saw he wore a dull iron ring with gold letters scrolling across the surface.
Despite his obvious misgivings, Stapes took the letter and disappeared through a set of double doors. I stood in the hallway for a nervous minute before he returned and ushered me inside, his manner still vaguely disapproving.
We moved through a short hallway, then came to a second set of doors flanked by armored guards. These weren’t ceremonial guards of the sort you sometimes see in public, standing stiffly at attention, holding halberds. They wore the Maer’s colors but beneath their sapphire and ivory were functional breastplates with steel rings and leather. Each man wore a long sword and a long knife. They eyed me seriously as I approached.
The Maer’s manservant nodded to me, and one of the guards manhandled me in a quick, competent way, sliding his hands along my arms and legs and around my chest, searching for hidden weapons. I was suddenly very glad for some of the misfortunes on my trip, specifically the ones that had ended with me losing the pair of slender knives I’d grown accustomed to wearing underneath my clothes.
The guard stepped back and nodded. Then Stapes gave me another irritated look and opened the inner door.
Inside, two men sat at a map-strewn table. One was tall and bald with the hard, weathered look of a veteran soldier. Next to him sat the Maer.
Alveron was older than I had expected. He had a serious face, proud around the mouth and eyes. His well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard had very little black left to it, but his hair was still full and thick. His eyes too, seemed to belie his age. They were clear grey, clever and piercing. They were not the eyes of an old man.
The Maer turned those eyes on me as I entered the room. He held Threpe’s letter in one hand.
I made a standard number three bow. “The Messenger” as my father called it. Low and formal, as fitting the Maer’s high station. Deferential, but not obsequious. Just because I tread heavily on propriety’s toes doesn’t mean I can’t play the game when it’s of use to me.
The Maer’s eyes flickered down to the letter, then back up. “Kvothe, is it? You travel swiftly to arrive in such good time. I’d not expected even a reply from the count so soon.”
“I made all possible speed to put myself at your disposal, your grace.”
“Indeed.” He looked me over carefully. “And you seem to vindicate the count’s opinion of your wit by making it all the way to my door with nothing but a sealed letter in your hand.”
“I thought it best to present myself as soon as possible, your grace,” I said neutrally. “Your letter implied you were in some haste.”
“And an impressive job you did of it too,” Alveron said, glancing at the tall man sitting at the table next to him. “Wouldn’t you say, Dagon?”
“Yes, your grace.” Dagon looked at me with dark, dispassionate eyes. His face was hard and sharp and emotionless. I suppressed a shiver.
Alveron glanced down at the letter again. “Threpe certainly has some flattering things to say about you here,” he said. “Well-spoken. Charming. Most talented musician he’s met in ten years. . . .”
The Maer continued reading, then looked back up, his eyes shrewd. “You seem a bit young,” he said hesitantly. “You’re barely past twenty, aren’t you?”
I was a month past my sixteenth birthday. A fact I’d pointedly omitted from the letter. “I am young, your grace,” I admitted, sidestepping the actual lie. “But I’ve been making music since I was four.” I spoke with quiet confidence, doubly glad of my new clothes. In my rags, I couldn’t have helped but look like a starving urchin. As it was, I was well-dressed and tanned from my days at sea, and the lean lines of my face added years to my appearance.
Alveron eyed me for a long, speculative moment, then nodded, apparently satisfied. “Very well,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am rather busy at present. Would tomorrow be convenient for you?” It wasn’t really a question. “Have you found lodgings in the city?”
“I have not made any arrangements as of yet, your grace.”
“You will stay here,” he said evenly. “Stapes?” He called in a voice hardly louder than his normal speaking tone, and the portly, grocer-looking fellow appeared almost instantly. “Set our new guest somewhere in the south wing, near the gardens.” He turned back to me. “Will your luggage be following?”
“I fear all my luggage was lost on the way, your grace. Shipwreck.”
Alveron raised an eyebrow briefly. “Stapes will see you are properly outfitted.” He folded Threpe’s letter and made a gesture of dismissal. “Good evening.”
I made a quick bow and followed Stapes from the room.
* * *
The rooms were the most opulent I’d ever seen, let alone lived in, full of old wood and polished stone. The bed had a feather mattress a foot thick, and when I drew its curtains and lay inside, it seemed as big as my entire room back at Anker’s.
My rooms were so pleasant it took me almost a full day to realize how much I hated them.
Again you have to think in terms of shoes. You don’t want the biggest pair. You want a pair that fits. If your shoes are too big, your feet chafe and blister.
In a similar way, my rooms chafed at me. There was an immense empty wardrobe, empty chests of drawers, and bare bookshelves. My room in Anker’s had been tiny, but here I felt like a dried pea rattling around inside an empty jewelry box.
But while the rooms were too large for my nonexistent possessions, they were too small for me. I was obliged to remain there, waiting for the Maer to summon me. Since I had no idea when this might happen, I was effectively trapped.
In defense of the Maer’s hospitality, I should mention a few positive things. The food was excellent, if somewhat cold by the time it made its way from the kitchens. There was also a wonderful copper bathing basin. Servants brought the hot water, but it drained away through a series of pipes. I had not expected to find such conveniences so far from the civilizing influence of the University.
I was visited by one of the Maer’s tailors, an excitable little man who measured me six dozen different ways while chattering about the court gossip. The next day, a runner boy delivered two elaborate suits of clothing in colors that flattered me.
In a way, I was fortunate I’d met with trouble at sea. The clothing Alveron’s tailors supplied was much better than anything I could have afforded, even with Threpe’s help. As a result, I cut quite a striking figure during my stay in Severen.
Best of all, while checking the fit of my clothes the chatty tailor mentioned cloaks were in fashion. I took the opportunity to exaggerate somewhat about the cloak Fela had given me, bemoaning the loss of it.
The result was a richly colored burgundy cloak. It wouldn’t keep the rain off worth a damn, but I was quite fond of it. Not only did it make me look rather dashing, but it was full of clever little pockets, of course.
So I was dressed, fed, and boarded in luxury. But despite this largess, by noon of the next day I was prowling my rooms like a cat in a crate. I itched to be outside, to have my lute out of pawn, to discover why the Maer needed the service of someone clever, well-spoken, and above all, discreet.