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“What will you do about Swift?” I asked Burrich, before I was even aware I was going to speak.

Burrich spoke almost casually. “I'll take my son home. Try to raise him to be an upright man.”

“You mean, not to use his Wit.”

Burrich made a noise that might have been an assent or a request to drop the topic. I couldn't.

“Burrich, all those years in the stables, all your gift for healing and calming and training animals. Was that the Wit? Did you have a bond with Vixen?”

He took his time answering me. Then, he gave me a question instead. “What you are really asking me is, did I do one thing and demand another of you?”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “Fitz. I've been a drunk. It was nothing I ever wished to see you or my sons become. I've given in to other appetites, knowing well that no good could come of it. I am a man, and human. But that doesn't mean that I would condone or encourage those things in my boys. Would you? Kettricken told me that you had a foster son. I was glad to hear that you had not been entirely alone. But did raising him not teach you something about yourself? That the faults you find abhorrent in yourself are even more horrifying when you see your son manifest them?”

He had summed it up too neatly. But I still took him round to the jump again, asking him, “Did you use the Wit when you were Stablemaster?”

He took a breath and said shortly, “I chose not to.” I thought that was all he would say, but a short time later, he cleared his throat and said, “But it is as Nighteyes said long ago. I could choose not to reply, but I could not choose to be deaf to them. I know what the hounds called me. I've even heard it from your own lips. Heart of the Pack. I knew what they called me and I was aware of their . . . regard for me. I could not conceal from them that I was aware of them, when they cried back to me of the joy of the hunt as they gave tongue to the chase. I shared that joy, and they knew it.

“Long ago, you told me you did not choose Nighteyes. That he chose you and bonded to you and gave you little choice in the matter. So it was with Vixen and me. She was a sickly pup, the runt of an otherwise hearty litter. But she had . . . something about her. Tenacity. And a mind to find a way around every obstacle. It was not to her mother that she whimpered when her brothers pushed her aside from the nipple, but to me. What was I to do? Pretend I could not hear her plea for a fair share, for a chance at life? So, I saw that she had a chance at the milk. But by the time she was large enough to fend for herself, she had attached herself to me. And in time, I admit, I came to rely on her.”

On some level, I had known it. I don't know why I wanted him to admit it. “Then you did forbid me what you yourself did.”

“I suppose I did.”

“Have you any idea how unhappy you made me?”

He didn't flinch. “About as unhappy as you made me when you didn't obey me. But, then, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Doubtless you never forbade anything to your Hap that you yourself were guilty of. And I'm sure he always listens to your wisdom.” He was very good. The sarcasm was there only if I looked for it.

That silenced me, for a time. But there was still one more question. “But why, Burrich? Why did you, why do you still so despise the Wit? Web, a man I much admire, sees no harm or danger in his magic. How could your own magic disgust you?”

He smoothed his hair back from his face and then rubbed his eyes. He spoke reluctantly. “Ah, Fitz, it's a long, old tale. My grandmother, when she discovered I had the taint, was horrified. Her father had it. And when he was faced with the choice of saving his wife and small children from slavers or getting his Wit-partner out of a burning stable, he chose his Wit-partner. And because of that, slavers took them. My great-grandmother lived a short, miserable time after that. My grandmother said she was a very beautiful woman. There are few worse traits for a slave to have. Her masters used her and her mistresses abused her out of jealousy. My grandmother and her two sisters witnessed it all. And grew up as slaves, used and abused. Because the man who should have made his primary bond to his wife instead chose a horse over her and his children.”

“One man, Burrich. One man making a bad decision. Or who knows what went through his head. Did he think that if he got to the horse, it could carry his wife and children to safety? Or help him battle the slavers? We can't know. But he was only one man. That seems a small foundation upon which to condemn all the Wit.”

He exhaled a short breath through his nose. “Fitz. His decision condemned three generations of his family. It did not seem small to anyone who bore that burden. And my grandmother feared that if I were allowed to go on as I had begun, I would do the same. Find an animal, bond to it, and put it above all other considerations. And after she died, for a time, she was right. I did exactly that. As did you. Have you never looked at your own life and said, ‘Take the Wit away, and what changes?' Think on it. If Nosey had not come between you and me, would not we have been closer when you were a boy? If you had not bonded to Smithy, would you have done better with your Skill-lessons? If Nighteyes had not been in your life, could Regal have found excuse to condemn you?”

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