The Least of Men, Part Ten

Read previous parts here:

Isboset looked up from the book he read as Badani entered. “Welcome, my former pupil.” He grimaced, a hand over his stomach. “I apologize. I have never become accustomed to travel.”

Badani smiled. “Tutor Isboset. Seeing you is cool water.” He gave a shallow bow. “I wanted to talk again.”

“Of course you did.” Isboset stood from the ground. “My master suspected you would. Please, enter.”

Badani let the tent flap fall behind him as he stepped into the dim lighting. A single lamp burned near the older man. “Your master suspected? Then, you are here to convince me to return with you.”

“Return with me? Hardly. You have more important things to do here. For instance, your training with Sword Dancer Arai. That is far more important than meeting my master. Oh, don’t be so surprised, prince. Not often does a sword dancer train the son of a patriarch. Word has spread.”

Badani looked toward the ground. “You know why he’s training me.”

“Because you need to learn to defend yourself.” Isboset grimaced again.

“Yes. Because I couldn’t defend myself the last time.”

“Ah. The last time.” The envoy’s hand remained over his stomach, his fingers digging into his flesh. “I remember.”

The wind pressed against the canvas of the tent. Badani swallowed. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He opened it again. “I did not want you to be punished. Not like that.”

“You were angry.” The corners of Isboset’s mouth spasmed downward. “I thought that you were petty.”

“I was. I didn’t see that you were trying to protect me. Forgive me. Pour cool water on my wound.” Badani’s voice was thick.

“Oh, Prince Badani. It is not easy to find cool water under the raging sun of anger.” Isboset turned away. His voice grew thick as well. “I wish you had not told me this. My master sent me on a very specific mission, and your begging forgiveness does not make it easy for me.”

“Tutor Isboset –“

“I am no longer your tutor, Prince Badani.”

“But you were.”

“I was. And I may yet be again. Will you learn another lesson from your old tutor?”

Badani nodded. “If you will teach me, I will listen.”

Isboset kept his back to the prince. “I once told you a saying. ‘The least of men is worth more than all Garethen can offer.’ Do you remember this?”

Badani smiled. “Of course. I’ve kept it close to my heart.”

The tutor’s body convulsed, though he remained standing. Badani attempted to rush to his tutor’s side, but a raised hand kept him away. “My… sickness rises when I travel. Please forgive me, but stay away.” He swallowed. “The saying is so very true. Garethen can offer a great many things. He can whisper many lies. Lies can entice even the most virtuous of men. And men that are not so virtuous.” He paused. “Even advisors to patriarchs.”

Badani cursed. “Is that why Bendaevi sent you away?”

Isboset half turned to glance at his charge. “Would you believe it?”

“How do you know?”

“My master knows many things.” He turned away again. “Prince Badani, did you bring with you anything to eat? It might settle my stomach.”

The young man shook his head. “I am sorry. I brought only myself.”

“No matter.” Isboset breathed deeply. “You must act against Bendaevi. Tell Arai what you suspect. Don’t mention me; he would suspect, of course. But if Arai makes the accusation before your father, your father would believe him. And your father would most certainly remove Bendaevi. And then, perhaps, I may be able to advise your father. Perhaps you and I might be reunited.”

Badani stepped forward. “I will fight against any who serve Garethen! I will go kill him myself!”

“No! No, prince! If you go and kill him now, no one will know. They will suspect I tricked you into it! You must tell your sword dancer what you have found out and let him make any accusation, so you will be innocent of it.”

“If he serves the Patriarch of Lies, I will kill him myself! He deserves it for what he did to you!”

“Yes. Yes he does,” growled Isboset. He convulsed again.

“Tutor!” Badani reached Isboset, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You need a healer.”

“No, no, I’m fine. I just need to eat something to settle my stomach. Get me something to eat.”

“Badani.” The dark voice broke the quiet of the tent. The prince and the tutor turned to see Arai standing in the open doorflap, his curved blade in hand. “Step away from him.”

Isboset nodded. “He’s right, Badani. You need to step away from me. It’s not right for the prince to be in a visitor’s tent.”

He convulsed again, falling forward. Badani caught him, supporting the older man’s weight.

He seemed so light.

“Sword Dancer Arai, he is not well. He needs a healer.”

“Put him down and come to my side, Badani. Now.”

“Why? He needs help!”

Isboset struggled to stand, putting one hand on Badani’s chest as he tried to push himself upright. He convulsed again, and the hand slipped upward to the young man’s throat.

The tutor whipped upright. His fingers dug into Badani’s flesh. He snarled, “Get away, or I devour the boy!”

Arai’s calm voice did not change. “You will not have him, garethspawn.”

Badani turned his head to see Isboset’s face. The tutor grimaced again. As his mouth turned down, his lips traveled farther down his face, down his chin, down the line of his jaw, down his neck, until a cavernous opening yawned at Badani. He could see nothing but emptiness inside.

Tutor Isboset had become a not-man. He had been twisted by Garethen. He was paranai.

Read Part Eleven here.


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