The Greater Good
There was a harsh gale blowing on the night Yarvi learned he was a king. Or half a king, at least.
A seeking wind, the Gettlanders called it, for it found out every chink and keyhole, moaning Mother Sea’s dead chill into every dwelling, no matter how high the fires were banked or how close the folk were huddled.
It tore at the shutters in the narrow windows of Mother Gundring’s chambers and rattled even the iron--bound door in its frame. It taunted the flames in the firepit and they spat and crackled in their anger, casting clawing shadows from the dried herbs hanging, throwing flickering light upon the root that Mother Gundring held up in her knobbled fingers.
It looked like nothing so much as a clod of dirt, but Yarvi had learned better. “Black--tongue root.”
“And why might a minister reach for it, my prince?”
“A minister hopes they won’t have to. Boiled in water it can’t be seen or tasted, but is a most deadly poison.”
Mother Gundring tossed the root aside. “Ministers must sometimes reach for dark things.”
“Ministers must find the lesser evil,” said Yarvi.
“And weigh the greater good. Five right from five.” Mother Gundring gave a single approving nod and Yarvi flushed with pride. The approval of Gettland’s minister was not easily won. “And the riddles on the test will be easier.”
“The test.” Yarvi rubbed nervously at the crooked palm of his bad hand with the thumb of his good.
“You will pass.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“It is a minister’s place always to doubt—-”
“But always to seem certain,” he finished for her.
“See? I know you.” That was true. No one knew him better, even in his own family. Especially in his own family. “I have never had a sharper pupil. You will pass at the first asking.”
“And I’ll be Prince Yarvi no more.” All he felt at that thought was relief. “I’ll have no family and no birthright.”
“You will be Brother Yarvi, and your family will be the Ministry.” The firelight found the creases about Mother Gundring’s eyes as she smiled. “Your birthright will be the plants and the books and the soft word spoken. You will remember and advise, heal and speak truth, know the secret ways and smooth the path for Father Peace in every tongue. As I have tried to do. There is no nobler work, whatever nonsense the muscle--smothered fools spout in the training square.”
“The muscle--smothered fools are harder to ignore when you’re in the square with them.”
“Huh.” She curled her tongue and spat into the fire. “Once you pass the test you only need go there to tend a broken head when the play gets too rough. One day you will carry my staff.” She nodded toward the tapering length of studded and slotted elf--metal which leaned against the wall. “One day you will sit beside the Black Chair, and be Father Yarvi.”
“Father Yarvi.” He squirmed on his stool at that thought. “I lack the wisdom.” He meant he lacked the courage, but lacked the courage to admit it.
“Wisdom can be learned, my prince.”
He held his left hand, such as it was, up to the light. “And hands? Can you teach those?”
“You may lack a hand, but the gods have given you rarer gifts.”
He snorted. “My fine singing voice, you mean?”
“Why not? And a quick mind, and empathy, and strength. Only the kind of strength that makes a great minister, rather than a great king. You have been touched by Father Peace, Yarvi. Always remember: strong men are many, wise men are few.”
“No doubt why women make better ministers.”
“And better tea, in general.” Gundring slurped from the cup he brought her every evening, and nodded approval again. “But the making of tea is another of your mighty talents.”
“Hero’s work indeed. Will you give me less flattery when I’ve turned from prince into minister?”
“You will get such flattery as you deserve, and my foot in your arse the rest of the time.”
Yarvi sighed. “Some things never change.”
“Now to history.” Mother Gundring slid one of the books from its shelf, stones set into the gilded spine winking red and green.
“Now? I have to be up with Mother Sun to feed your doves. I was hoping to get some sleep before—-”
“I’ll let you sleep when you’ve passed the test.”
“No you won’t.”
“You’re right, I won’t.” She licked one finger, ancient paper crackling as she turned the pages. “Tell me, my prince, into how many splinters did the elves break God?”
“Four hundred and nine. The four hundred Small Gods, the six Tall Gods, the first man and woman, and Death, who guards the Last Door. But isn’t this more the business of a prayer--weaver than a minister?”
Mother Gundring clicked her tongue. “All knowledge is the business of the minister, for only what is known can be controlled. Name the six Tall Gods.”
“Mother Sea and Father Earth, Mother Sun and Father Moon, Mother War and—-”
The door banged wide and that seeking wind tore through the chamber. The flames in the firepit jumped as Yarvi did, dancing distorted in the hundred hundred jars and bottles on the shelves. A figure blundered up the steps, setting the bunches of plants swinging like hanged men behind him.
It was Yarvi’s Uncle Odem, hair plastered to his pale face with the rain and his chest heaving. He stared at Yarvi, eyes wide, and opened his mouth but made no sound. One needed no gift of empathy to see he was weighed down by heavy news.
“What is it?” croaked Yarvi, his throat tight with fear.
His uncle dropped to his knees, hands on the greasy straw. He bowed his head, and spoke two words, low and raw.
And Yarvi knew his father and brother were dead.
Excerpted from Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. Copyright © 2014 by Joe Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.