Jasper picked the otak up by accident. It was bundled up in his cloak, and when he lifted the soft folds of cloth only to find them squirming his first thought was that Sparrowhawk had woken up, and enchanted them, was playing some petty, mean trick to get Jasper back for something that was Sparrowhawk's own fault.
Then the otak sank sharp needle teeth into Jasper's hand, and he dropped the cloak, jerking backwards.
He cradled his hurt hand to his chest. The otak sat in the folds of his cloak, watching him. Jasper hated its eyes. Its pointy little face seemed as smug as Sparrowhawk's.
He said, "Shoo," and it hissed at him.
The otak settled a little more comfortably in his cloak, his very own cloak, the grey he had won at Roke just by virtue of getting in the front door, the silver clasps that had been his own skill. He was leaving with it as he wouldn't leave with a staff.
"Get away," he said, crouching a little and baring his teeth, "you foul little beast."
Jasper was tired. He wanted to pack and be gone, even though he knew the process was still several days off; ships to arrange, Lady O and her husband's official invitation yet to arrive, his masters to bid farewell. The packing could wait. The otak made a snarling little noise and chewed at a fold of the cloth, but Jasper was almost sure that it wouldn't actually eat the cloth, even nibble it that much. They were carnivorous creatures.
He eyed it a moment longer, and then said, "I hate you," and swept away to lunch.
"And what do you think of our new friend?" Jasper asked, laughing, sprawled across Vetch's bed.
"I like him well enough," Vetch said mildly. "He seems eager to learn, and friendly enough once he has assured himself that you're not teasing him."
"Is that a tone of rebuke I hear?" Jasper said, smiling up at him. "Vetch, truly, you don't blame me, do you?"
"You could have been kinder."
"I suppose I could have," Jasper said. "He must be so used to only having goats for friends. I suppose they do not mind being ordered around."
"You're cruel," Vetch said. He was smiling, though, against his better judgment, and Jasper revelled, as always, in having escaped Vetch's better judgment. Sometimes he thought the thing was stalking them, determined to take all the fun out of life. One day he was sure he would scare the thing off for good, and then, and then—
"Do you actually like him?" Jasper asked. "Honestly."
"Yes," Vetch said. He was quiet for a while, and then he added, "I think he will be a great wizard."
"That's not the same thing at all," Jasper said, feeling somewhat petulant. He still had time, he knew. There was time for everything. He was a quick pupil, and good at illusions, and the masters rarely bothered to correct him anymore.
They just asked him questions. It was irritating, but Jasper put up with them.
"Jasper," Vetch said, "did he say something to you?"
"No," Jasper said. "I don't like him. He's grubby and small and he walks like he owns this place."
"I can't think of anyone else who does that," Vetch said, smiling.
"I don't," Jasper said. "He's nothing. He has no respect for Roke. He hadn't even heard of it before he shipped himself off from Gont. He's from nowhere and he acts as though we should all be gratified by his holy presence."
"Jasper," Vetch said, again.
"That's what they call me," Jasper said, lightly, and watched Vetch frown. Vetch didn't know what he meant by that, and neither did Jasper, exactly, but it was still something rewarding to have confused Vetch in a conversation where he must have been feeling infinitely patient and condescending.
Jasper turned on his heel and swept out, cloak billowing behind him. He spent dinner comparing theory with a boy from Havnor, but every now and then, when the boy said something too clumsy, or strange, he turned to wink at Vetch, and Vetch always smiled in return. Everything was fine.
Work with the Master Namer in the Isolate Tower was cold and dull, and Jasper couldn't keep his eyes open. The runes blurred. He looked up. Vetch was watching him.
Jasper thought about mouthing something witty and clever across the room, something impudent the Master Namer couldn't catch. He stayed quiet instead, and rested his head against the wall. It was easier to just watch Vetch look down at the books and whisper the runes and note something down before he looked back at Jasper, until Jasper felt warm again.
He drowsed against the wall, and woke to find himself whispering words of power that weren't real.
When the otak had refused to vacate his room by dinner, despite Jasper making a false attempt at friends and trying to lure it away with little scraps of meat, he went looking for Vetch.
Vetch was much more difficult to find than he had ever been before, these days, but Jasper was a sorcerer if not a wizard. He didn't need a staff. He had been Vetch's friend.
He found Vetch outdoors , lying on a grassy hill, some forgotten book lying discarded by his side. He was staring up at the sky, the easy warmth of dusk.
"Are you going to fly away again?" Jasper asked, voice light.
Vetch sat up. "I never did that."
"It's not a criticism," Jasper said. "I wouldn't mind, if you let me keep a hold on you. I could tug you along like a kite."
Vetch didn't smile like he would have once, not that long ago, and Jasper's smile faltered. He hated Sparrowhawk, though it was much harder to hate someone who lay still and barely healing than he would have thought.
"You're looking after the creature, aren't you?" he said.
"What creature?" Vetch asked.
"The otak," Vetch said. "Yes. I mean – it seems to have chosen me as a companion in… Sparrowhawk's absence."
"It's in my room," Jasper said. "On my clothes. I can't get it out."
"Ah," Vetch said. After a moment, he stood up, and they walked into the halls of the school in silence. Jasper took the steps slowly. Vetch would not go ahead of Jasper to his own room, and he liked the bump of Vetch's elbow against his. He was tired. He hadn't know, when he'd been pushing for Vetch to choose sides. He hadn't thought it would end like this.
In his room, the otak wasn't even bothering to hide, munching at one of the scraps Jasper had left it and scattering crumbs of chicken over Jasper's cloak.
Vetch knelt down and asked, "Would you care to come with me, small friend?"
Jasper scoffed, and then scoffed again when the otak looked up and, after a moment's hesitation, came forward to perch on Vetch's offered hand, allowing itself to be lifted to Vetch's shoulder.
Jasper looked at the familiar, dear planes of Vetch's face and said, "Thank you."
"Jasper," Vetch said, "have you considered what you are doing?"
"Leaving without your staff—"
"There is nothing left for me here," Jasper said bitterly. "He has burned everything to the ground."
Vetch sighed. "That was a harsh night for us all. I think Sparrowhawk has paid his dues, and dearly."
"He is sleeping," Jasper said. "He is sleeping while our Archmage is dead and the students live in fear and you will – will not even look at me anymore. Am I worth so little? That was an easy fee to pay."
"Don't be a child, Jasper."
"Don't treat me like one," Jasper snapped. "I'm not a bully. He made his own decisions."
"You goaded him into it," Vetch said. He looked up and met Jasper's gaze. It was a shock. "It was your pride, as much as it was his."
"I did not bring death to the school," Jasper said, voice shaking with the surprise of the accusation.
"No," Vetch said, "only Sparrowhawk's anger."
"And it's my fault that he can't control himself?"
"Jasper." Vetch rubbed his face with his hands. He looked exhausted, too. Jasper wondered suddenly and stupidly at the possibility of a holiday; taking a boat to visit the family Vetch boasted off, taking Vetch back to his father's house, where they could eat fine foods and go riding and lie around in luxury for as long as it pleased them. They both of them, he thought, needed some sleep. "I don't want to fight with you."
"You haven't been speaking to me long enough to fight," Jasper shot back. He felt childish, but he could not tell Vetch about the horses and green meadows and fine foods. Vetch would not understand; or he would, and would judge Jasper for it.
"Perhaps it's my fault," Vetch said.
"It's Sparrowhawk's fault."
"But I thought better of you," Vetch said. "Sparrowhawk is young and foolish and learning, we all knew that. I think maybe I just set my expectations too high for you. It was unfair of me. Forgive me."
Jasper stared at him, wordless.
Vetch nodded, and left, the otak chittering on his shoulder.
Jasper threw back the covers of his bed and found the otak snarling up at him, some small bird's toe bone clutched to its chest, gnawed clean.
There was, a little further down his mattress, a small, stinking circle of urine, seeping ever so slowly further into his mattress.
Jasper looked at the otak and let out a shuddering, painful breath. He slept on the floor.
The lights in the Hearth Hall were bright. Jasper laughed and shook his head and asked, "Are we entertaining tonight, do you suppose?"
"I've been told a great beauty is coming to visit," Vetch said, grinning.
"Oh, yes?" Jasper felt exuberant with joy, ready to throw magic across the world, make it all grow as bright as the hall. "With bright eyes, perhaps, and a winning smile, and fingers that might beckon you to their side, oh friend?"
"That would be an honour I shall not presume upon," Vetch said, taking up the jest with the solemnity that made Jasper want to throw an arm around his shoulders, clasp him to his side. He dared to, and a passing boy laughed at the strange picture they made, slender Jasper trying to hold onto Vetch, who was solid and unbreakable as the rocks on the shore. Jasper didn't mind tonight. He was happy.
"Come on," he said, looking up at Vetch. "You should not be so down on yourself."
"The Lady O is married," Vetch said, "and happily so, I am told, to my infinite disappointment."
"A woman!" Jasper said, without meaning to.
Vetch looked at him oddly. "Of course. I think beauty would be an odd word for a man. Why did you not think so?"
Jasper shook his head. It felt packed with cotton wool all of a sudden, the bright lights of the evening dampened. "I did not think the Masters would be so agreeable as to allow a woman in our midst, that's all."
"Ah, well," Vetch said, smiling. "Then you may celebrate."
"Yes," Jasper said. "In fact, I must get dressed – if you will excuse me—"
He went upstairs and studied himself in the mirror, trying to see himself from the perspective of someone else: the laughing, mocking eyes, the easy smile, a lithe body but with the shoulders, he thought, of a man. His hair fell tangled and messy so he brushed it, took care over his appearance, adjusted the silver clasps of his cloak. He did not think, truly, that beauty as noun would be so terribly amiss. He was vain, he knew, but he saw truly. He was good with illusions. He knew what was real, and what was not.
When he returned downstairs, Vetch's face was lit up and welcoming, and Sparrowhawk stood within the reach of his arms, slouching and shadowed with his hood still up over damp hair. He looked pleased to see Vetch, as everyone was always pleased to see Vetch. There was a creature crouched on his shoulder.
Rat in the hood, Jasper thought, and stepped forward to make his own welcome.
That night, he crafted a tree, tall and strong and untouched, the trees he remembered from home. He added beauty piece by piece, new moments, new details, and looked at Vetch now and then to see if he was looking at the real beauty of it.
He let the shape of the trunk die last, the tiny imperceptible knots he had used as footholds, the curve of the first boughs where he had sat sprawled with a leg dangling lazily and eaten an apple that was not golden, but tasted crisp and sweet.
When he turned, Vetch was talking to Sparrowhawk, a laughing, conciliatory expression on his face.
Jasper had a job offer, at least.
Somewhere in there was a sunny day, a day bright and real enough that any illusion would only subtract from its beauty. Vetch and Jasper took turns quizzing each other on the names of the coastlines of Earthsea instead, lying side by side in the sunny grass.
Vetch felt like an anchor, and Jasper was safe and sound even as he named every treacherous bed of rock from Roke to Astowell.
"He's stirring in his sleep," Vetch told Jasper. Jasper looked up, startled and barely awake, back aching. It was his third night on the floor. He felt like a coward, or a fool, but the otak would not leave him alone, and he would not admit defeat and find another bed.
"Who is?" Jasper managed finally.
"Sparrowhawk," Vetch said. "Master Herbal says he is living within the world of dreams again, infinitely closer now than where he once was. He will be awake soon. Maybe in only a few days."
"Fine," Jasper said. "Why does this matter to me?"
"Jasper," Vetch said, "will you not stay? Apologise. The Masters would hear it. They do not even require it, but if it's what you need to do to convince yourself to stay—"
"I have nothing to apologise for," Jasper said, stiffly. He sat up, his back aching. "Please keep that beast away from me."
"I thought you were my friend," Vetch said, very soft.
Jasper sucked in a breath at the enormity of the unfairness of that. I tried, he wanted to tell Vetch. Making friends comes easily to me; I am good-humoured and clever and attractive. I came to Roke expecting to rule the masses and have them enjoy it and instead I found you, and wanted to be ruled. How dare you. How dare you ask me for this and give me nothing. I am so tired. I have not slept in my bed for three days, and no other bed is on offer.
He said, "I am only sorry to you."
"And that won't change anything?"
"No," Jasper said. "Please take the beast."
It was back again that night, snarling and biting at his throat when he climbed into bed unawares, but Jasper had not truly expected anything different.
Vetch came to the harbour to see Jasper off.
Jasper said, "I did not expect to see you here," and eyed the otak perched on Vetch's shoulder, uneasy about it.
"I'm going to miss you," Vetch said simply, and gave Jasper a hug. Jasper stopped worrying about the otak.
Instead, he hid his face against Vetch's other shoulder and whispered something there, too quiet for Vetch to hear. He pressed the shape of his true name into Vetch's shoulder like a needle with its thread attached, a trail to follow back, something that Vetch might wander along until he found Jasper again. He pressed it there like a kiss, pushing it deep into meat and bone, and then he stepped away and watched the thread unspool, knowing the line would always be slack. Watched it drop in the space between their feet, the longest thread that ever had been, the most ineffective lead, wasting the fabric of the world.
He spent his voyage silent and unmoving, pressing his fingers to the pulse in his neck and the bite of the hoag that thrummed over it.