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It would not be the first time Bryony had risked the branding iron, but before she'd been sick with hunger. This was different. This wouldn't be stealing to stop the gnawing in her belly. This would be stealing just because she wanted it.
She caressed the smooth leather binding of the book. It was not so large; it could be concealed in the folds of her shawl, and none would be the wiser. One chilblained finger traced the flowing curves of gold. She knew that first lettera Bthe same as a priest once told her began her own name. Bryony. A pagan name, he had called it, not really a name at all but that of a plant with poisonous berries, and he had urged her to adopt another one, one from the holy saints. Bertha or Barbara.
But her name was the only gift she had had from her mother, and so Bryony valued it all the more for that. Margherita, the wise woman who had raised her, had asked Bryony's mother how she would name her.
"She has her father's eyes," the dying woman had whispered, cradling her newborn babe. "See how they gleam black like the berries in the hedgerow. Name her for those."
A fitting name, Bryony sometimes thought, since my birth was as fatal for my mother as any deadly juice.
Her gaze lingered on the gleaming B. This must be the Holy Book then, though it was smaller than those she had seen in the churches. She opened it. A lion with angel's wings stared out at her, his great paws clutching a manuscript, his dark eyes wise and sad.
"Those who steal from the Church steal from God himself and will end their days in torment and damnation." That's what the priest had told her when he'd caught her hovering by the communion bread. Much he knew about torment and damnation, with food on his table and a monstrous paunch. Even with the wars endedat least for the time beingthe streets were full of beggars and the common folk still starved, for fifteen years into his reign the greedy Henry, the eighth of that name, had not fulfilled the promises of his golden youth.
No. Bryony placed the book back on the table. No. The purpose of this great University of Cambridge, they said, was the spreading of knowledge, and yet they'd branded a serving-man some three months ago for stealing a manuscript. The college servants had to watch him being punished. He'd not cried out when the felon's F was burnt into his cheek, but the tears had streamed down his face when they cut his hand off. Good King Hal's men had a way with thieves.
The chilblains itched painfully on Bryony's fingers. How could a man earn food for his family with only one hand? Skivvying for the learned doctors was better than trying to sleep with an empty stomach under the shivering hedges. It would be madness to risk losing food and ale and a leaky roof over her head for a book she couldn't read. Any moment now Mistress Scabtree, the college housekeeper, might enter the room with those sharp suspicious eyes, seeking an excuse to be rid of her.
And there's plenty of others, desperate for this work, Bryony told herself. As desperate as I was.