So he pleased all there, except Ged. Ged joined his voice to the praises, but not his heart. "I could have done better," he said to himself, in bitter envy; and all the joy of the evening was darkened for him, after that.
(A Wizard of Earthsea, Chapter Three: The School for Wizards)
After the stillness of the Isolate Tower, the Great House seemed like a city in itself, pulsing with life and enchantment even when the festival was done and all had gone to their beds. Weary though he was from walking and feasting, Ged could not rest that night, and the ill-humor that had descended on him in the hall would not be dispelled. He dozed, wrapped in his cloak, slipping into a dozen brief broken dreams. List after list of names he saw, and a tall tree crowned with light; Vetch's broad grin, the meadows above Ten Alders, and an empty road stretching out before him. Again and again he woke, restless and uneasy, forced to remind himself that he had come home and all was well.
At last he could bear it no longer; hours before dawn he rose and dressed, smiling briefly to see the otak curled up on a corner of his pallet. He left it sleeping and went out into the dark.
Through all the School he walked, keeping to corridors and covered galleries, for the cold winter rain still fell steadily in the open courts. No one else was about. Ged walked on, alone, relearning each room and hallway, remembering.
His few months here now seemed a bright, laughing moment between the silence of Ogion's house and the longer silence of the Tower; the memory of his novice self seemed young, wide-eyed, unbearably ignorant. The past year had left him less inclined to play.
There had been weeks when he longed to be done with dry name-learning, to return here and work spells once more; and other weeks or months when the lists of names and the power they held became his whole world and nothing else mattered. And all this made him sharp with his seven companions, impatient with those slower to learn, scornful of whatever amusements they found for themselves outside the Tower's high room. Yet there had also been certainty there: that of being the quickest and the best, with the other seven boys admitting it and fearing Ged slightly, as the village children had done. Now his return to the Great House made him no more than one prentice among many, deferring to the sorcerers, looking on as they won fame and praise.
He quickened his pace, passing through the lower levels of the North Tower deep in thought. If he had worked that illusion... (How had Jasper managed the fragrance? Ged could not quite follow it, and would never ask.) But he would not have made a Year-Tree; he would have chosen the sea, perhaps, or a forest. (There had been far too much triumph in Jasper's smile as he bowed to the Masters, the guests, and his fellows.) Or, if he were a sorcerer, and if he had an opportunity to display his skill before the whole School, he would scorn illusion and show them some real magic. And they would all praise him then, all of them -
Suddenly, only a little way ahead of him, a door opened. A man paused on the threshold, looking out, with someone else behind him in a dim glow of candlelight.
Having no wish to speak with anyone, Ged darted behind a pillar, breathing a spell of concealment; yet not quickly enough, for the man turned his head towards him for an instant before leaning down to murmur something to his companion. Frozen in the shadows, barely breathing, Ged heard the reply clearly: a woman's laugh, soft and low.
Only one woman slept in the Great House that night. And the man... The man he knew, even before he heard the door close, and footsteps approach, and the familiar voice speak a finding-charm in a sudden glow of werelight.
"Well, well," Jasper drawled. He leaned against the wall with easy grace, his arm a barrier trapping Ged against the pillar. "Following me about, Sparrowhawk? Spying? Oh, for shame!"
Whatever he said would be turned to mockery. Ged bit back the first heated denial that rose to his lips; striving to match Jasper's poise, he straightened his back, folded his arms, and countered his enemy's accusation with another.
"The shame is yours. I know who has that chamber, I heard her... What were you doing in there?"
"Come, that's clear enough, surely," said Jasper with a sly smile. "Are you a child, that I must explain it?"
And clear it was, all too clear, though Ged had no words for it other than the coarse speech of a mountain village; nothing to match the radiant lady in the Hearth Hall. He stood mute for a moment, glaring at Jasper, and it came to him that he had forgotten this: the way Jasper could force him to silence, so easily, with no more than a raised eyebrow or a cool smile. He had sought to forget it, so during the year in the Tower his memory of Jasper had dwindled to an almost comfortable thing, a goad to his ambition, a rival he would certainly put to shame some day. Now the illusion wavered and broke in the presence of the living reality who stood so close, too close, looking down at Ged and silencing him all over again.
Yet this was also a Jasper he had never seen before: with a bright hot gleam in his dark eyes, wine on his breath, black hair loose about his shoulders. The silver clasp of his cloak hung open, as if he had dressed in haste, carelessly, and the fine silk tunic beneath was crumpled and unfastened at the neck, revealing a livid mark like a bruise or bite on the smooth brown skin. Ged looked away quickly, for that was something he had no wish to see, but Jasper had followed his gaze; he smiled knowingly, and Ged felt driven to stop that smile and break his own silence, so he said abruptly, harshly, "What of her lord?"
"But I pleased him also! There's many a man who enjoys the sight of his woman writhing beneath another - or the touch of another, of course. So I did please him, and that may indeed be useful some day: you know how such matters are... arranged," said Jasper, waving his hand in a languid, elegant gesture that spoke of a hundred things Ged couldn't possibly know about great lords and their ways.
He looked aside, feeling his face flush.
"What's the matter, Goatherd? Do I shock you?"
"No, you disgust me," Ged answered, trying to sound cold and stern as the Master Namer. "To waste yourself on such folly, instead of true wizardry - "
"You are shocked... I ask your pardon. But it's not quite forbidden, you know, till you have your staff, and take the vow, and say the spells of binding - you do know this, don't you? As for folly - well, it doesn't seem very clever to me, to forswear a thing for the rest of your days without even finding out what it means. Poor little Sparrowhawk!"
He had forgotten how mocking that voice could be. "I do not - "
"Oh, I'll wager you do! But you listen to the Masters, like a good child, when they say desire will drain you of magic. And those who are least certain of their power do fear losing even a drop of it, of course... So is that what ails you?" Jasper leaned closer, a glint of malice in his gaze. "Are you afraid?"
"No!" Ged thought about pushing past Jasper's outstretched arm, but that would make it look as if he were running away. His anger choked him. He would not run.
It was pride, not fear, that kept him from what Jasper spoke of. He had first felt those stirrings in his body during the long winter at Re Albi, in silence and falling snow; and Ogion had explained, in his quiet way, that it was a natural thing and would end once Ged became a wizard, for he who works the Art feels no desire and shares his bed with no one. That notion pleased Ged as much as his strange new urges disturbed him. And so, when he came to Roke, he resolved to live as a true mage should, right from the start. Though he knew that some of his companions did otherwise, this only made him more proud of being able to control what they could not, and more ruthless in banishing his body's desires with hard work and cold water.
Had he thought of it at all, until this moment, he would have guessed that Jasper, his only rival, did the same; but now, angered and dismayed, he stood alone in the night with a Jasper who spoke so lightly of what Ged would not even think upon. Behind the walls of his certainty he felt a spark of doubt.
"Well, and if you're not afraid, why the temper? I mean no harm." Jasper's smile deepened. "Or are you missing him already?"
"Why, whoever kept you warm through all those long nights in the Tower..."
"You - I - " Fiercely, Ged stopped his own outraged stammer. "There was no one. I did not - "
"You jest." Jasper put on a look of polite astonishment. "Everybody does - "
"I am not 'everybody'!"
"No, indeed," Jasper scoffed. "You are Sparrowhawk, the marvel of Gont - the only boy in the history of the School to return from his year in the Tower innocent as a maiden! Clearly, we lesser folk must bow to your greatness."
Ged clenched his fists. Once again, he had only spoken his thoughts and the truth; and once again, Jasper had taken his words and made him sound like an arrogant fool.
"Well, they say you're a bright lad, Goatherd, so you may learn something of these matters yet, if you try. None of my concern, of course." Jasper shrugged, glancing away, as if the conversation had begun to weary him. "But they also call you a wizard born - so maybe you were born with no stones, anyway..."
Ged knew he was being goaded. He knew Jasper enjoyed this: he waited for Ged to lose his temper, in order to mock him; standing there with the woman's scent still clinging to his fine clothing, smiling slightly, looking down at Ged and waiting.
And Ged would not give him what he wanted. He stared back at Jasper, steadily, hating him and saying nothing.
"Or maybe I'm wrong... You'll ripen to it, I dare say, by the time you're made sorcerer."
Jasper's tunic was embroidered at the neck with golden thread. It drew the eye, so Ged looked at that, and at the mark like a bruise on Jasper's skin, there where the pulse beat fast as Ged's own. He would not look at the sorcerer's silver clasp, open and gleaming in the werelight.
"We sorcerers," said Jasper, lingering over the words, "have so much to think about. Real power, real magery, the High Arts - oh, you cannot imagine!" There was laughter in his voice, barely hidden. "And we think of our future - of what we shall gain, and lose... And we make the most of what is ours, while we can. All of us. Oh, I could tell you a few things about our friend Vetch - "
Ged would listen no longer. Nor did he want to hear the sound that broke from his own throat at those words: a low, harsh, plaintive cry, as if he were in pain but could not speak of it. Heedless of his dignity now, he shoved forward against Jasper's arm, seeking only to escape. Then Jasper moved, and Ged stumbled sideways, and all in a moment found himself with his back to the wall, pinned there by the weight of Jasper's body.
The werelight went out.
"Caught you, Goatherd..."
Jasper's breath was warm in the darkness, yet Ged shivered at the touch of it. He made to break away, and failed; in the months to come he would often wonder why he had not stopped this right there, berating himself for that failure.
"Oh, no," said Jasper, "not till you pay a forfeit."
Ged held still, alert for some new trickery.
"Do not fear, it's nothing much. I would only have you answer a question of mine."
"Did you think of me, there in the Tower?"
Whatever he had expected to hear, it was not that; nor did he expect Jasper to shift against him, the tall slender body pressing closer, unwelcome and undeterred.
"No more than you thought of me. Now let me pass!"
Jasper made no move. "I was glad to see you gone," he whispered, "but what of it? None of this year's novices have been as amusing as you, Sparrowhawk." He shifted again. "Always I know what you'll do... and yet I do not."
Then Ged felt Jasper raise his hand, and braced himself, thinking the other was casting some spell; but the hand only came to rest on the front of Ged's coarse linen shirt, right over his pounding heart.
"What will you do now? If I touch you, like this..." Slowly Jasper's hand moved upward, the long fingers gliding along Ged's bare throat.
"Have you never... Truly? And what if I do this?"
Jasper's palm felt cool against the left side of Ged's face; it was Ged who burned, with a bewildering heat sweeping over him all at once. He recoiled, pressing against cold stone, but Jasper followed his motion, quick and relentless, a shadow in the dark.
Ged drew a breath that shook with rage. "I do not - "
Then Jasper's mouth came down on his, and nothing made sense any more.
It had to be a spell. It seemed not possible that he, Ged, could stand in that familiar corridor in the chill of midwinter and catch alight in an instant, like kindling, as easily as Jasper's hands slipped beneath his cloak; in no more than the space between one heartbeat and the next, between wonder and horror and his first wild thought: this was what Jasper had done with the Lady of O, and the Lord. This, and more. He could not understand why it roused him to think of that, why his lips parted in a sudden gasp, as if some strange curse were making him do the contrary of what he willed, so that he opened himself to Jasper even as he trembled with loathing, and learned the taste of a mouth he wished only to strike. Wine and disdain... another heartbeat, and another... feather-light touches, each motion precise as a court-dance, illusive as foam on the sea.
And Ged, burning, understood one thing at last: he would not endure being touched and tasted like this, as an idle toy. Anger merged with desire, driving him forward; and he rose in that long-denied fire, disrupting the dance, feeling a vicious pleasure at Jasper's small startled movement as he grasped a handful of long hair, not gently, and held his tormenter to a furious, awkward kiss: hot and hard and real.
The next moment they stood two paces apart, staring at each other mutely by Ged's werelight.
Then Jasper smiled and shrugged, regaining composure as quickly as he bent to pick up his cloak from where it had fallen. "So eager!" he said. "Who would have thought it?"
"I was not - I wanted none of that - I don't - " Ged rubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand, scowling.
"No? Well, no matter. After all, it's not for children..." Jasper turned away, his cloak swirling around him. "Good night, Goatherd."
Ged watched him go, and swore yet another oath in the darkest corner of his heart; and all around him the Great House slept, awaiting the light of dawn.