Authors: R.H. Russell
by R.H. Russell
Venture Delving is a bonded servant, a member of the lowest class in the world. Already fatherless, when he loses his mother, he veers from energetic to out of control. But when Venture's rage saves the life of Jade, his best friend and his master's daughter, Venture finds himself in the last place he ever expected—a center renowned for training young boys to be professional fighters.
When Venture realizes he's fallen in love with Jade, he knows that the only way he'll ever have her, the only way he'll ever be free to live the life he's meant to live, is to defy convention, common sense, the trust of those he cares about most—and sometimes the law—and become the best fighter in the world, the Champion of All Richland. Venture must battle not only rival fighters, but the ghosts of his past and the members of a privileged warrior class who stand between him and his dream.
Book one of the Venture series. 60,000 words. Ages thirteen and up.
Electronic Copyright 2011, R.H. Russell
Original Copyright 2005
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, or stored in a database retrieval system, using any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder. This book is not licensed for resale or sharing.
Also by R.H. Russell,
Twin Rivers, Richland, 648 After the Founding
Venture knew enough about death. Enough to recognize the distinctive coldness, the terrifying stillness. His master rushed into the room, to Venture’s mother’s bedside. Venture looked up, and what he saw in Grant Fieldstone’s eyes brought a fresh cry to his aching throat. Master Fieldstone flung his candle onto the bedside table, causing its pewter base to wobble. Hot beeswax spattered over his hand. He grabbed Venture roughly under the arms and hoisted him aside.
“Jade!” Master said. “Wake your grandmother. Tell her to send for the healer. Wake everyone. Hurry!”
The next moments may have been minutes or hours, for time meant nothing to Venture in the blur of whispers, shadows, and candlelight. He huddled in a corner watching and yet not watching, his tears falling steady and silent while Jade leaned on him and held his clenched hand in both of hers. She nervously unfolded his fingers, rubbed them flat.
Master, still in his rumpled nightshirt, motioned Jade’s grandmother to take her.
“But I want to stay here with Vent.” Jade squeezed his hand with a strength that made him feel the pain of her love for him.
His own hand was limp, his body too separated from what was going on to move, to do what he wanted it to do, but his heart squeezed back, pleaded,
Don’t go, Jadie. You’re keeping me here
“Come with me now, dear, just for a moment,” Mistress Rose Fieldstone said to her granddaughter. In a low whisper she added, as though he couldn’t hear, “Come now, Jade, be good and calm. Don’t upset Venture.”
Jade’s fingers slowly loosened. He couldn’t say her name.
Look at me, Jadie
, his heart begged, for he knew that if she did, his eyes would pull her back. But she looked away to hide her tears.
Mistress led her away, and the emptiness, the sheer aloneness, swelled and swelled. Master knelt down in front of him, and it grew so that he thought he might never breathe again; it pounded in his head so that he almost didn’t hear him whisper, “Venture, I’m so sorry. There’s nothing we can do. Your mother has died. Venture?”
Venture’s head lolled to the side, then jerked back up. Someone was shaking him. He gasped, eyes flashing open.
“There now, Vent. Come here.” Though she struggled with his size, Mrs. Bright, the cook, scooped him up as if he were a baby and not a very big eight-year-old boy. She sat down with him in her lap, in the plain wooden chair next to his mother’s bedside table. “Breathe in and out. Just keep breathing in and out.”
He breathed in and out and he watched Master pace the room, his hands held to his head.
“He’s all right, sir. He was just holding his breath.”
“He was blue. He was so blue,” Master said almost to himself, his voice faltering.
“I’ll watch him tonight, sir.”
“Vent,” Master said, “promise me you won’t do that again. We all care for you. I care for you, and I would be pleased to keep you in my house. We’re going to take care of you. And Miss Jadie, she wants to know that you’re okay. And your brother, Justice. He’s been sent for already. Won’t he want to find you safe?”
Venture nodded numbly.
Master carried his mother’s body downstairs himself, and Mistress Rose put Jade back to bed, then went to help supervise the care of the body.
When Venture was alone with Mrs. Bright, she pulled something out of the deep pocket of her robe—a small, simple shape carved out of wood, worn smooth with age, pierced and strung with a thin black ribbon. It was his mother’s; he’d never seen her without this symbol of the Faith of Atran. He bowed his head and, without a word, she slipped it onto him. Mrs. Bright wiped a tear from her cheek, put him in his bed, covered him snugly, and patted his hair.
“Vent, are you wanting anything?”
“Jade.” His lips barely moved. It was so hard to make them move.
“I’ll get her. Don’t you worry.”
In a moment Jade was there, diving onto the mattress beside him, plunging her little feet under the covers, wiggling her toes against his legs. She still smelled of the rose water bath his mother had given her hours before.
“He wants me to stay with him. Don’t you, Vent?”
“You stay as long as he wants you.”
“Grandmother won’t like it. She’ll be angry with you.”
Young ladies of Richland did not sleep on the floor as even the princesses did in barbaric Trytlo, and they certainly did not sleep next to little servant boys.
“Master won’t mind. He’s worried sick about Vent.”
“Tell him I’m sorry. I just forgot to breathe.”
“I know, Vent,” Mrs. Bright said. “I’ll tell him. No one’s mad at you.”
Mrs. Bright settled onto the floor in the corner, drew a blanket over her round shoulders, and stared into her lap.
Under the blankets, Jade’s hand found Venture’s, and he held it tight this time. She cried quietly against his shoulder for a long while. Cried for his mother and for hers, until her breathing slowed and her hand relaxed in his, and he knew that she was asleep.
From the corner, Mrs. Bright began to hum a song his mother had often sung to him and Jade, a song about the God of the Faith of Atran, a song about love. He squeezed his mother’s little wooden pendant in his free hand. She had always told him that God had a reason for everything, that he was always with him.
God be with you
. That’s what she’d said as she tucked him in. His mother loved her maker. Maybe that was how she knew that God was with him. Maybe that was why God had been with him. Now that she was gone—now what?
As he lay there in the endless hours of darkness, Venture had his own words for God.
I’m mad at you. I think I even hate you. But don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me all alone
Spring’s First Month, 652 After the Founding
Venture plopped his pen carelessly into the ink pot and eyed the heavy oak book cabinet, by far the dominant piece of furniture in Mistress Rose’s study. Could he reach the top of it yet? It was taller than Master, but Venture was tall for eleven, growing every day.
Jade kicked him under the table, her usual method of prompting him to get his eyes and his mind back on his work. He’d managed to finish his morning chores on time, even with her yapping in his ear all the while, and now it was time for their lessons. Jade was busy writing a comparison of Atranian and Richlandian government, an assignment Venture had finished yesterday—only Mistress Rose refused to read it until he copied it over. All she’d commented on was his penmanship—
Abominable! Indecipherable scrawlings!
At this rate he’d never find out what she thought of his ideas or how he’d articulated them, for every attempt at penning them neatly looked more blotchy and tangled than the last. So much for spring and the fresh start Jade had made him promise to attempt. It was only a few weeks into the new year, and he wished he could start it over again.
Venture kicked the pile of crumpled-up failures that littered the floor around his chair, got up, stood at the end of the book cabinet, and extended his arms. He grabbed the top of the cabinet, no problem. When he stood on tiptoe, he could even curl his fingers all the way over the molding along the top. He smiled to himself, then glanced at Jade. She shot him a reproachful look, took a stained rag from his place at the table, and made a show of blotting the ink he’d splashed around the pot.
He gripped tighter and started to do a pull-up.
“Vent! Get down from there! Grandmother will be back any minute.”
“How many do you think I can do?”
He pulled harder, until his chin was all the way up and he was inhaling the thick layer of dust that coated the top of the book cabinet. He sneezed violently, and the cabinet began to tip. He tried to shift his weight, to tilt it back, but it was too late. He threw himself backward in the air and yelled a desperate warning to Jade as the cabinet crashed down over the study table where she was sitting, shattering the legs and crushing it flat, to the floor. The walls shook. Books flew and wood split, then groaned and settled.
“Jade!” Venture scrambled to his feet, ready to dig her out of the wreckage.
“I’m here, Vent,” she said weakly. She stood just clear of the mess, ashen-faced but unscathed.
“Venture Delving!” Mistress’s voice was shaky, frighteningly quiet, her hands braced against the open doorway as though she needed it to hold her up after the shock.
Jade looked at her grandmother, then back at Venture with that expression of utter disappointment in him that made him feel like he’d shrunk to almost nothing.
“Pull-ups on the book cabinet?”
Venture blinked at Mistress.
. She’d seen that. She’d seen enough to know that it was entirely his fault, that it was absolutely inexcusable. It wasn’t the first time he’d broken a seemingly unbreakable piece of furniture, but it was the first time he’d nearly killed the only heir to the Fieldstone fortune—and his best friend—Jade.
“I’m sorry. I’ll—I’ll clean it up.”
Several of the other servants ran in to see what the commotion was, and Venture felt even smaller.
“No,” Mistress said. “Just go.”
Go? Go where? Venture felt a deeper pang of panic. This was it. They were going to get rid of him now. His brother, Justice was in Calm Harbor, trying to finish his apprenticeship. He couldn’t take him on, even if he had the means to compensate his master for him. But Grant Fieldstone could sell his contract, or at least send him to the orphans’ home until he was old enough to be more useful. Until someone else had beaten some sense into him.
Mistress wouldn’t even look at him now, and Jade’s face had the sort of crinkle to it that threatened to turn into a full-blown crumple.
Able, the quiet, thirty-something servant Venture had been rooming with since his mother died, hurried forward and took Venture by the elbow. “I got some errands in town,” he said. “I could use Vent’s help.”
Mistress nodded. Looking at Able, not Venture, she said stonily, “Grant and I will deal with this when he gets home this afternoon.”
Able had gone into the blacksmith’s, but Venture, in no mood to be sociable, paced outside, hands in his pockets, eyes on his boots, thinking about what was going to happen when Master came home. Maybe he’d finally take a willow switch to him. Make him sting. Dad would’ve beat the snot out of him, and not with a switch. He’d done so for far less.