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Fool’s Quest is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Robin Hobb
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-553-39293-7
Winterfest Eve at Buckkeep
I am warm and safe in the den, with my two siblings. They are both heartier and stronger than I am. Born last, I am smallest of all. My eyes were slow to open, and I have been the least adventurous of the cubs. Both my brother and my sister have dared, more than once, to follow my mother to the mouth of the den dug deep in the undercut bank of the river. Each time, she has snarled and snapped at them, driving them back. She leaves us alone when she goes out to hunt. There should be a wolf to watch over us, a younger member of the pack who remains with us. But my mother is all that is left of the pack, and so she must go out to hunt alone and we must stay where she leaves us.
There is a day when she shakes free of us, long before we have had enough of her milk. She leaves us, going to the hunt, departing the den as evening starts to creep across the land. We hear from her a single yelp. That is all.
My brother, the largest of us, is filled with both fear and curiosity. He whines loudly, trying to call her back to us, but there is no response. He starts to go to the entrance of the den and my sister follows him, but in a moment they come scrabbling back to hunker down in fear beside me. There are strange smells right outside the den, bad smells, blood and creatures unknown to us. As we hide and whimper, the blood-smell grows stronger. We do the only thing we know to do. We hunch and huddle against the far back wall.
We hear sounds. Something that is not paws digs at the mouth of our den. It sounds like a large tooth biting into the earth, biting and tearing, biting and tearing. We hunch even deeper and my brother’s hackles rise. We hear sounds and we know there is more than one creature outside. The blood-smell thickens and is mingled with the smell of our mother. The digging noises go on.
Then there is another smell. In years to come I will know what it is, but in the dream it is not smoke. It is a smell that none of us understands, and it comes in driven wafts into the den. We cry, for it stings our eyes and sucks the breath from our lungs. The den becomes hot and airless and finally my brother crawls toward the opening. We hear his wild yelping, and how it continues, and then there is the stink of fear-piss. My sister huddles behind me, getting smaller and stiller. And then she is not breathing or hiding anymore. She is dead.
I sink down, my paws over my nose, my eyes blinded by the smoke. The digging noises go on and then something seizes me. I yelp and struggle, but it holds tight to my front leg and drags me from the den.
My mother is a hide and a bloody red carcass thrown to one side. My brother huddles in terror at the bottom of a cage in the back of a two-wheeled cart. They fling me in beside him and then drag out my sister’s body. They are angry she is dead, and they kick her as if somehow their anger can make her feel pain now. Then, complaining of the cold and oncoming dark, they skin her and add her small hide to my mother’s. The two men climb onto the cart and whip up their mule, already speculating at the prices that wolf cubs will bring from the dog-fighting markets. My mother’s and sister’s bloody hides fill my nose with the stench of death.
It is only the beginning of a torment that lasts for a lifetime. Some days we are fed and sometimes not. We are given no shelter from the rain. The only warmth is that of our own bodies as we huddle together. My brother, thin with worms, dies in a pit, thrown in to whet the ferocity of the fighting dogs. And then I am alone. They feed me offal and scraps or nothing at all. My feet become sore from pawing at the cage, my claws split and my muscles ache from confinement. They beat me and poke me to provoke me to hurl myself against bars I cannot break. They speak outside my cage of their plans to sell me for the fighting-pits. I hear the words but I do not understand them.
I did understand the words. I spasmed awake, and for a moment everything was wrong, everything was foreign. I was huddled in a ball, shuddering, and my fur had been stripped away to bare skin and my legs were bent at the wrong angles and confined by something. My senses were as deadened as if I were wadded in a sack. All around me were the smells of those hated creatures. I bared my teeth and, snarling, fought my way out of my bonds.
Even after I landed on the floor, the blanket trailing after me and my body asserting that I was, indeed, one of those hated humans, I stared in confusion around the dark room. It felt as if it should be morning, but the floor beneath me was not the smooth oaken planks of my bedchamber, nor did the room smell as if it belonged to me. I came slowly to my feet, my eyes striving to adjust. My straining vision caught the blinking of tiny red eyes, and then translated them to the dying embers of a fire. In a fireplace.
As I felt my way across the chamber, the world fell into place around me. Chade’s old rooms at Buckkeep Castle emerged from the blackness when I poked at the embers and added a few sticks of wood. Numbly, I found fresh candles and kindled them, waking the room to its perpetual twilight. I looked around, letting my life catch up with me. I judged that the night had passed and that outside the thick and windowless walls, day had dawned. The dire events of the previous day—how I had nearly killed the Fool, left my child in the charge of folk I did not fully trust, and then dangerously drained Riddle of Skill-strength to bring the Fool to Buckkeep—rushed over me in a sweeping tide. They met the engulfing memories of all the evenings and nights I’d spent in this windowless chamber, learning the skills and secrets of being the king’s assassin. When finally the sticks caught flame, enriching the thin candlelight in the room, I felt as if I had made a long journey to return to myself. The wolf’s dream of his horrific captivity was fading. I wondered briefly why it had come back with such intensity, and then let it go. Nighteyes, my wolf, my brother, was long gone from this world. The echoes of him lived on in my mind, my heart, and my memories, but in what I faced now, he was no longer at my back. I stood alone.
Except for the Fool. My friend had returned to me. Battered, beaten, and possibly not in his right mind, but at my side again. I held a candle high and ventured back to the bed we had shared.
The Fool was still deeply asleep. He looked terrible. The marks of torture were written on his scarred face; hardship and starvation had chapped and chafed his skin and thinned his hair to broken straw. Even so, he looked better than when first I had seen him. He was clean and fed and warm. And his even breathing was that of a man given a fresh infusion of strength. I wished I could say I had given it to him. All unwitting, I had stolen strength from Riddle and passed it to my friend during our Skill-passage through the standing stones. I regretted how I had abused Riddle in my ignorance but I could not deny the relief I felt to hear the Fool’s steady breathing. Last night he had had the strength to talk with me and he had walked a bit, bathed himself, and eaten a meal. That was far more than I would have expected of the battered beggar I had first seen.
But borrowed strength is not true strength. The hasty Skill-healing I’d practiced had robbed him of his scanty physical reserves, and the vitality I had stolen from Riddle could not long sustain the Fool. I hoped the food and rest he had taken yesterday had begun to rebuild his body. I watched him sleeping so deeply and dared to hope he would live. Moving softly, I picked up the bedding I had dragged to the floor in my fall and arranged it warmly around him.
He was so changed. He had been a man who loved beauty in all its forms. His tailored garments, the ornaments in his chambers, the hangings for his bed and windows, even the tie that had held back his immaculately groomed hair had all been chosen with harmony and fashion in mind. But that man was gone. He had come back to me as a ragbag scarecrow. The flesh of his face had fallen to skin-coated bones. Battered, blinded, wearing the scars of torture, the Fool had been so transformed by hardship that I hadn’t recognized him. Gone was the lithe and limber jester with the mocking smile. Gone, too, elegant Lord Golden with his fine clothes and aristocratic ways. I was left with this cadaverous wretch.
His blind eyes were closed. His mouth was a finger’s width ajar. His breath hissed in and out. “Fool?” I said and jogged his shoulder cautiously. The only response was a slight hitch in his breathing. Then he sighed out, as if giving up on pain and fear, before resuming the even respiration of deep sleep.
He had fled torture and traveled through hardship and privation to meet me. His health was broken and he feared deadly pursuit. I could not grasp how he had managed it, broken and blind. But he’d done it, and for one purpose. Last night, before he had surrendered to unconsciousness, he had asked me to kill for him. He wanted us to return to Clerres, to his old school and to the people who had tormented him. And as a special favor, he had asked that I use my old assassin’s skills to kill them all.
He knew that I’d left that part of my life behind me. I was a different man, a respectable man, a steward of my daughter’s home, the father of a little girl. Assassin no more. I’d left killing behind. It had been years since I’d been lean, the muscles of my arms as hard as the heart of a killer. I was a country gentleman now. We had both changed so much.
I could still recall the mocking smile and flashing glance that had once been his, charming and enraging at once. He had changed, but I was confident I still knew him in the important ways, the ones that went beyond trivial facts such as where he was born or who his parents had been. I’d known him since we were young. A sour smile twisted my mouth. Not since we were children. In some ways I doubted that either of us had ever truly been a child. But the long years of deep friendship were a foundation I could not doubt. I knew his character. I knew his loyalty and dedication. I knew more of his secrets than anyone, and I had guarded those secrets as carefully as if they were my own. I’d seen him in despair, and incapacitated with terror. I’d seen him broken with pain and I’d seen him drunk to maudlin. And beyond that, I’d seen him dead, and been him dead, and walked his body back to life and called his spirit back to inhabit that body.
So I knew him. From the bones out.
Or so I had thought.
I took a deep breath and sighed it out, but there was no relief from the tension I felt. I was like a child, terrified of looking out into the darkness for fear of what I might see. I was denying what I knew was true. I did know the Fool, from his bones out. And I knew that the Fool would do whatever he thought he must in order to set the world in its best track. He had let me tread the razor’s edge between death and life, had expected me to endure pain, hardship, and loss. He had surrendered himself to a tortured death he had believed was inevitable. All for the sake of his vision of the future.
So if he believed that someone must be killed, and he could not kill that person himself, he would ask it of me. And he would freight the request with those terrible words: For me.
I turned away from him. Yes. He would ask that of me. The very last thing I ever wanted to do again. And I would say yes. Because I could not look at him, broken and in anguish, and not feel a sea-surge of anger and hatred. No one, no one could be allowed to hurt him as badly as they had and continue living. Anyone so lacking in empathy that he could systematically torment and physically degrade another should not be suffered to live. Monsters had done this. Regardless of how human they might appear, this evidence of their work spoke the truth. They needed to be killed. And I should do it.
I wanted to do it. The longer I looked at him, the more I wanted to go and kill, not quickly and quietly, but messily and noisily. I wanted the people who had done this to him to know they were dying and to know why. I wanted them to have time to regret what they’d done.
But I couldn’t. And that tore at me.
I would have to say no. Because as much as I loved the Fool, as deep as our friendship went, as furiously hot as my hatred burned, Bee had first rights to my protection and dedication. Already I had violated that, leaving her to the care of others while I rescued my friend. My little girl was all I had left now of my wife, Molly. Bee was my last chance to be a good father, and I hadn’t been doing very well at it lately. Years ago I’d failed my older daughter, Nettle. I’d left her to think another man was her father, given her over to someone else to raise. Nettle already doubted my ability to care for Bee. Already she had spoken of taking Bee out of my care and bringing her here, to Buckkeep, where she could oversee her upbringing.
I could not allow that. Bee was too small and too strange to survive among palace politics. I had to keep her safe with me at Withywoods, in a quiet and secure rural manor, where she might grow as slowly and be as odd as she wished, and as wonderful. So although I had left her to save the Fool, it was only this once and only for a short time. I’d go back to her. Perhaps, I consoled myself, if the Fool recovered enough, I could take him with me. Take him to the quiet and comfort of Withywoods, let him find healing and peace there. He was in no condition to make a journey back to Clerres, let alone aid me in killing whoever had done this to him. Vengeance, I knew, could be delayed, but the life of a growing child could not. I had one chance to be Bee’s father and that time was now. At any time, I could be an assassin for the Fool. So for now, the best I could offer him was peace and healing. Yes. Those things would have to come first.
For a time, I quietly wandered the assassin’s lair where I had spent many happy childhood hours. The clutter of an old man had given way to the tidy organizing skills of Lady Rosemary. She presided over these chambers now. They were cleaner and more pleasant, but somehow I missed Chade’s random projects and jumbles of scrolls and medicines. The shelves that had once held everything from a snake’s skeleton to a piece of bone turned to stone now displayed a tidy array of stoppered bottles and pots.
They were neatly labeled in a lady’s elegant hand. Here were carryme and elfbark, valerian and wolfsbane, mint and beargrease, sumac and foxglove, cindin and Tilth smoke. One pot was labeled OUTISLANDER ELFBARK, probably to distinguish it from the far milder Six Duchies herb. A glass vial held a dark-red liquid that swirled uneasily at the slightest touch. There were threads of silver in it that did not mingle with the red, yet did not float like oil on water. I’d never seen such a mixture. It had no label, and I put it back carefully in the wooden rack that kept it upright. Some things were best left alone. I had no idea what karuge root was, nor bloodrun, but both had tiny red skulls inked next to their names.
On the shelf below were mortars and pestles, knives for chopping, sieves for straining, and several small, heavy pots for rendering. There were stained metal spoons, neatly racked. Below them was a row of small clay pots that puzzled me at first. They were no bigger than my fist, glazed a shiny brown, as were their tight-fitting lids. They were sealed shut with tar except for a hole in the middle of each lid. A tail of twisted waxed linen emerged from each hole. I hefted one cautiously and then understood. Chade had told me that his experiments with exploding powder had been progressing. These represented his most recent advance in how to kill people. I set the pot back carefully. The tools of the killing trade that I had forsaken stood in rows like faithful troops. I sighed, but not out of regret, and turned away from them. The Fool slept on.
I tidied the dishes from our late-night repast onto a tray and otherwise brought the chamber to rights. The tub of bathwater, now cold and gray, remained, as did the repulsively soiled undergarment the Fool had worn. I did not even dare to burn it on the hearth for fear of the stench it would emit. I did not feel disgust, only pity. My own clothing from the day before was still covered in blood, from both a dog and the Fool. I told myself it was not all that noticeable on the dark fabric. Then, thinking again, I went to investigate the old carved wardrobe that had always stood beside the bed. At one time, it had held only Chade’s work robes, all of them of serviceable gray wool and most of them stained or scorched from his endless experiments. Only two work robes hung there now, both dyed blue and too small for me. There was also, to my surprise, a woman’s nightrobe, two simple shifts, and a pair of black leggings that would have been laughably short on me. Ah. These were Lady Rosemary’s things. Nothing here for me.
It disturbed me to slip quietly from the rooms and leave the Fool sleeping, but I had errands to carry out. I suspected that someone would be sent in to do the cleaning and to supply the room afresh, and I did not like to leave him there unconscious and vulnerable. But at that point, I knew I owed Chade my trust. He had provided all for us the previous evening, despite his pressing duties.
The Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom sought to negotiate alliances, and to that end powerful representatives had been invited to Buckkeep Castle for the week of Winterfest. Yet even in the middle of an evening of feasting, music, and dancing, not only Chade but King Dutiful and his mother, Lady Kettricken, had found time to slip away and greet me and the Fool, and Chade had still found a way to have this chamber well supplied with all we needed. He would not be careless of my friend. Whoever he sent to this chamber would be discreet.
Chade. I took a breath and reached for him with the Skill-magic. Our minds brushed. Chade? The Fool is asleep and I’ve some errands that I’d like—
Yes, yes, fine. Not now, Fitz. We’re discussing the Kelsingra situation. If they are not willing to control their dragons, we may have to form an alliance to deal with the creatures. I’ve made provisions for you and your guest. There is coin in a purse on the blue shelf if you need it. But now I must put my full attention to this. Bingtown claims that Kelsingra may actually be seeking an alliance with the Duchess of Chalced!
Oh. I withdrew. Abruptly, I felt like a child who had interrupted the adults discussing important things. Dragons. An alliance against dragons. Alliance with whom? Bingtown? And what could anyone hope to do against dragons, save bribe them with enough meat to stupefy them? Would not befriending the arrogant carnivores be better than challenging them? I felt unreasonably snubbed that my opinion had not been consulted.
And in the next instant I chided myself. Let Chade and Dutiful and Elliania and Kettricken manage the dragons. Walk away, Fitz.
I lifted a tapestry and slipped into the labyrinth of secret corridors that wormed its way behind the walls of Buckkeep Castle. Once I had known the spy-ways as well as I knew the path to the stables. Despite the passing years, the narrow corridors that crept through interior walls or snaked along the outer walls of the castle had not changed.
But I had. I was no longer a skinny boy or even a youth. I was a man of sixty, and though I flattered myself that I was fit enough still to do a hard day’s work, I was no longer limber and lithe. The narrow corners that I had once ferreted past without a thought now required a bit of negotiating. I reached the old pantry entrance and hunched by the concealed door, ear pressed to the wall, waiting for a quiet moment before I emerged behind a meat rack full of dangling sausages.
I was saved only by the benign chaos of Winterfest. When I stepped out of the pantry into the corridor, a large woman in a flour-dusted apron demanded to know what was taking me so long. “Did you find the goose-grease for me or not?”
“I, I didn’t see it there,” I replied and she responded tartly, “That’s because you went into the wrong pantry! Go along two more doors, down a flight of steps, take the second door to the cold room, and look for it there, in a big brown crock on a shelf. Hurry up!”
She spun around and left me standing. As she walked away, she muttered loudly about hiring new help right before a feast-day. I blew out a nervous breath and turned to find a fellow of about my height and build laboring up the corridor with a heavy brown crock in his arms. I followed him and as he went into the kitchens, I stepped past the kitchen door and its exhaled aroma of fresh bread, steaming soups, and roasting meats and hurried outside.
In the teeming courtyard of Buckkeep Castle on a wintry day, I was just one more man rushing on an urgent errand. I looked up at the sky in surprise. Past noon. I had slept far longer than I’d intended. A brief break in the storms had bared the midday sun, but more snow was surely coming our way. Now I regretted how impulsively I had discarded my cloak the day before. I’d be lucky to regain the keep before the snow came down.
I went first to the infirmary, hoping to apologize to Riddle privately. But it was busier than usual, for apparently some of our guardsmen had gotten into a bit of a brawl last night. No great damage to any of them, save for one fellow who had been bitten on the cheek. The ugliness of that was enough to make anyone wince. Again, the noise and disorder were my allies as I swiftly discovered that Riddle was no longer there. I left, hoping that he was well recovered by now but surmising that he was actually recuperating someplace more conducive to rest. I stood outside the infirmary deciding what I should do next.
I hefted my purse. The coins I had hoped to spend to delight my little daughter still weighted it heavily—now supplemented by what Chade had left me. I had loaded my purse well at Withywoods in the belief that I would indulge her in every possible way on that market day in Oaksbywater. Had it been only yesterday? Bleakness washed over me. What I had intended as a day of pleasure and indulgence had ended in violence and bloodshed. To save the Fool’s life, I had sent her home without me, in the dubious guardianship of Scribe FitzVigilant and Lady Shun. Little Bee, only nine and looking more like a six-year-old. I wondered what sort of day she was having. Nettle had promised to send a bird to let her know I had arrived safely at Buckkeep, and I knew that my elder daughter would never fail me at such a task. So, later today, I would write letters, to FitzVigilant and Revel, but most especially to Bee. A top-notch messenger on a good horse could have them there in three days. Four if more snow fell . . . For now the bird message would have to suffice. And while I had this time, I would take myself to Buckkeep Town, not just to buy myself a fresh set of garb with Chade’s coin but also to buy more gifts for Bee. Winterfest gifts, I decided, to show her I had thought of her even if I could not be with her. I’d indulge myself by indulging her! Even if my gifts would reach her days late.
I chose to hike down to the town rather than Skilling to Dutiful or Nettle to arrange a horse from the stables. Horses did not do well on the steeply cobbled streets, and Dutiful was doubtless still fully engaged with entertaining his trade delegations. Nettle was probably still very angry with me, as I well deserved. No harm in letting time cool her temper a bit.
I found the road wider than I recalled it, with trees cut back from the margin on both sides, and far fewer potholes and muddy swathes than I remembered. And the town was closer than it had been, for its sprawl of houses and shops had begun to crawl up the road to the castle. An area that once had been forest was now the outskirts of the town, with merchants of all sorts, a cheap tavern called the Buck Guard, and what I suspected was a whorehouse behind it. The door of the Bawdy Trout was off its hinges and a scowling innkeeper was repairing it. Past it, old Buckkeep Town was decked out for the feast-day to come, with garlands and evergreen boughs and brightly colored pennants. The streets were busy, not just with deliveries to taverns and inns, but with all the travelers and tradesfolk that prospered during a holiday.
It took some time for me to find the items I needed. In one shop that was obviously accustomed to catering to sailors and guardsmen, I found two cheap ready-made shirts that almost fit, a long vest of brown wool, a heavy cloak, and some trousers that would do for a time. I had to smile as I realized I had become accustomed to a much better quality of clothing. After giving that a thought, I went to a tailor’s shop, where I was swiftly measured and clothing was promised before two days had passed. I feared I would be in Buckkeep at least that long, but mentioned that if the clothing was ready faster, I would pay a bonus. I fumbled my way through estimating the Fool’s height and greatly diminished girth, and they told me that if I returned by late afternoon, they would have smallclothes and two serviceable house-robes for him. I told them he was ill and that soft fabrics would be appreciated. The coins I left with them promised swift work.
With that necessary shopping out of the way, I took myself down to where music and merry chaos dominated the streets. Here was the Winterfest of my youth: puppetry and juggling, song and dance, vendors offering sweets and savory treats, hedge-witches selling potions and charms, girls in holly wreaths and every noisy joy the heart could hope for. I missed Molly, and longed ardently to have Bee at my side, experiencing this with me.
I bought things for her. Ribbons with bells on them, sticks of candy, a silver necklace with three amber birds, a packet of spiced nuts, a green scarf with yellow stars woven in, a small belt-knife with a good horn handle, and then a canvas bag to carry it all in. It came to me that a messenger could just as easily take this bag to her as a simple letter from me, and so I filled it. A necklace made from speckled seashells from some faraway beach, a pomander for her winter woolens chest, and on until the bag would barely close. For the moment, it was a blue-sky day, with a fresh wind that tasted of the ocean. A gem of a day, and I enjoyed imagining her delight in all the trinkets she would discover in this bag. As I loitered amid the merriment, I thought of the words I would write to go with it, in letters written plain and clear that she might read my thoughts herself and know how much I regretted leaving her. But soon the wind brought a fresh bank of dark-gray snow clouds scudding in. Time to return to the castle.
I stopped by the tailor’s shop on my way back and was rewarded with garments for the Fool. As I left, lowering clouds that had been on the horizon stole in. Snow began to fall and the wind bared its teeth as I hurried up the steep road back to the castle. I was passed in at the gate as easily as I had left: The trade delegation and the merrymaking of Winterfest meant that the guards had been ordered to be generous in whom they admitted.
But it reminded me there was still a problem I’d soon have to solve. I needed an identity. Since I had shaved my beard to please my daughter, not only the staff of Withywoods but even Riddle had been astonished at my youthful appearance. After all the years I’d been absent from Buckkeep Castle, I feared to introduce myself as Tom Badgerlock, and not just because the streak of white in my hair that had prompted that name was long gone. The folk who recalled Tom Badgerlock would expect a man of sixty years, not someone who looked to be in his middle thirties.
Instead of using the kitchen entrance, I went to a side hall and entered through a door mostly reserved for couriers and higher-status servants. My bulging bag gained me entry, and to the one under-steward who asked my business, I replied that I had a parcel for Lady Nettle and I was allowed to pass.
The wall hangings and furniture of the castle had changed over the years, but the basic hierarchy of chambers remained as it had been since my boyhood. I went up a servants’ stair, gained the floor reserved for lesser nobility, spent a small amount of time apparently waiting for someone to let me into an apartment there, and, as soon as the corridor was cleared, successfully gained access to the next floor and the door to Lady Thyme’s old chambers. The key turned smoothly and I entered the room. The concealed entrance to Chade’s old chamber was through a wardrobe of musty old women’s clothing.
My crawl through the wardrobe was as ungainly as it had been the night before, and I found myself wondering if all Chade’s secrecy was truly needed. I knew the Fool had asked for these rooms because he still feared pursuit, but I trusted that our passage through the stones would thwart anyone who had been following him. Then I recalled how the White girl had died, with parasites eating her eyes, and decided that caution was ever the better path. Keeping the Fool well hidden could do no harm.
One of Chade’s secretive minions had visited those chambers while I was gone. I needed to meet him. Or her. The Fool’s filthy garments had been taken and the tub had been emptied and pushed into the corner. Last night’s dishes and glasses had been tidied away. A heavy stoneware pot was lidded deep in the hearth, but the smell of braised beef had still escaped to flavor the room. A cloth had been spread on the table, and a loaf wrapped in a clean yellow napkin reposed next to a small dish of pale winter butter. There was a dusty bottle of red wine and a couple of cups, alongside plates and cutlery.
Kettricken was probably responsible for the two sensible linen nightgowns draped over the chair. Two pairs of loose trousers in the same weave were with them. Lamb’s-wool bed stockings were neatly rolled into balls. I smiled, considering it quite possible that the former queen had raided her own wardrobe for these soft things. I gathered the clothing and set it on the foot of the Fool’s bed.
The garments left on the second chair were more puzzling. A sky-blue dress, with dagged sleeves and dozens more buttons than were required to close any garment, was on the chair back. On the seat of the chair, almost-sensible trousers of black wool terminated in cuffs of blue-and-white stripes. The slippers beside them resembled a pair of small boats, with pointed, upturned toes and a thick heel. I thought they were too large for the Fool even if he had been well enough to walk around Buckkeep.
I had been aware of his deep and steady breathing since I entered the chamber. It was good that he still slept, and I suppressed my boyish impulse to wake him and ask him how he felt. Instead, I found paper and sat down at Chade’s old worktable to compose my note to Bee. I was full of words, managed a greeting, and then stared at the paper for a time. There was so much I needed to say, from reassurances that I would quickly return to advice for dealing with FitzVigilant and Shun. Could I be certain that hers would be the only eyes to read what I wrote? I hoped so, and yet my old training came to the fore and I decided not to commit to paper any words that could create ill feeling toward her. So I wrote only that I hoped she would enjoy these small things. As I had long promised, there was a knife for her belt, which I trusted she would use wisely. I reminded her that I would return home as soon as I could, and that I hoped she would use her time well while I was gone. I did not command her to study hard with her new tutor. In truth, I rather hoped that between my absence and the winter holiday, they would set lessons aside for a time. But I did not commit that thought to paper, either. Instead I closed my message by hoping that she had enjoyed Winterfest and noting that I missed her terribly. Then I sat for a time promising myself that at least Revel would be sure that there was some festivity for the holiday. I had intended to find some minstrels that fated day in Oaksbywater. Cook Nutmeg had proposed a menu that Revel had embellished. It was somewhere on my desk at home.
I had to do better by my daughter, and so I would. But there was little I could do about it until I returned home. The gifts would have to suffice until I could be there for Bee.
I spindled my note and tied it with some of Chade’s twine. I found his sealing wax, melted a bit onto the knot, and imprinted the blob with my signet ring. No charging buck for FitzChivalry Farseer, only the badger’s footprint that belonged to Holder Tom Badgerlock. I stood and stretched. I’d need to find a courier.
My Wit prickled. My nostrils flared, trying to find a scent. I did not move, but I let my gaze rove about the room. There. Behind a heavy tapestry of hounds pursuing a deer that concealed one of the secret entryways to the chamber, someone breathed. I centered myself in my body. My own breathing was silent. I did not reach for a weapon but I shifted my weight so that I could stand, move, leap, or drop to the floor in an instant. I waited.
“Don’t attack me, sir, please.” A boy’s voice. The words had a country lad’s drawn-out vowels.
“Come in.” I made no promises.
He hesitated. Then, very slowly, he pushed the tapestry to one side and stepped out into the dim light of the chamber. He showed me his hands, the right one empty, the left holding a scroll. “A message for you, sir. That’s all.”
I assessed him carefully. Young, perhaps twelve. His body had not yet turned the corner to manhood. Bony, with narrow shoulders. He’d never be a large man. He wore the Buckkeep blue of a page. His hair was brown and as curly as a water dog’s, and his eyes were brown as well. And he was cautious. He’d shown himself but not stepped far into the room. He had sensed danger and announced himself to me, which raised him in my estimation.
“A message from whom?” I asked.
The tip of his tongue wet his lips. “A man who knew to send it to you here. A man who taught me the way to come here.”
“How do you know I’m the one it’s for?”
“He said you’d be here.”
“But anyone might be here.”
He shook his head but didn’t argue with me. “Nose broken a long time ago and old blood on your shirt.”
“Bring it to me, then.”
He came like a fox thinking of stealing a dead rabbit from a snare; he walked lightly and did not take his eyes from me. When he reached the table’s edge, he set the scroll down and stepped back.
“Is that all?” I asked him.
He glanced around the room, at the firewood and the food. “And whatever else you might wish me to fetch for you, sir.”
“And your name is . . .?”
Again he hesitated. “Ash, sir.” He waited, watching me.
“There’s nothing else I need, Ash. You may go.”
“Sir,” he replied. He stepped back, not turning nor taking his eyes from me. One slow step after another, he retreated until his hands touched the tapestry. Then he whisked himself behind it. I waited, but did not hear the scuff of his steps on the stairs.
After a moment, I rose silently and ghosted toward the tapestry. But when I snatched it back, empty air met my gaze. He was gone as if he’d never been there. I permitted myself a nod. On his third try, Chade seemed to have found himself a worthy apprentice. I wondered how much of the training he did, or if Lady Rosemary taught the boy, and where they had found him . . . and then I set it firmly out of my thoughts. None of my business. And if I were wise, I’d ask few questions and become as little involved in the current state of assassinations and politics at Buckkeep as I could. My life was complicated enough already.
I was hungry, but thought I’d wait a bit longer to see if the Fool would wake and eat with me. I went back to the worktable and drew Chade’s scroll toward me. Within the first two lines, I felt the webs of Buckkeep intrigue tightening around me again. “As you are here, with little to do other than wait for his health to improve, perhaps you are willing to make yourself useful? Clothing has been provided, and the expectation has been planted that the court will be visited by Lord Feldspar of Spiretop, a small but well-established holding in the far northwest corner of Buck. Lord Feldspar is as stony as his name, fond of drink, and there is a rumor that a copper mine on his holding has recently begun to produce very fine-grade ore. Thus he has come to Buckkeep to be a party to the current trade negotiations.”
There was more. I was never once addressed by name, the handwriting was not recognizably Chade’s, but, oh, the game clearly was. I finished reading the scroll and went to consider the outlandish dress that had been left for me. I sighed. I had some time yet before I would be expected to join them for an evening meal and conversation in the Great Hall. I knew my role. Talk little, listen a great deal, and report back to Chade all details as to who sought to make me an offer and how rich the offer was. I could not imagine what the greater game was. I knew that Chade would have decided what I needed to know and given me exactly that much. Weaving his webs as he ever did.
And yet despite my annoyance, I felt a stirring of the old excitement as well. It was Winterfest eve. The castle kitchen would have outdone itself, there would be music and dancing and folk from all over the Six Duchies. With my new identity and in clothes that would both draw attention to me and mark me as a stranger, I would once more spy for Chade as I had when I was a youth.
I held the dress up against me. No. Not a dress, a fussy and foppish long jacket, to go with the impractical shoes. The buttons were dyed bone, carved into little blue posies, and they were not just on the front but on the long cuffs as well. Lots of buttons. Buttons that did no buttoning but were mere ornamentation. The fabric was soft, a kind I had not seen before, and when I held the garment by the shoulders it proved far heavier than I had expected. I frowned, then quickly realized that the secret pockets had already been loaded for me.
I found a very nice set of small burglary picks and a tiny fine-tooth saw blade. In another pocket was an extremely sharp blade of the sort favored by cutpurses. I doubted I was deft enough to ply that trade. The few times I’d done it for Chade, it had been not for the coins but to see what love-notes were in Regal’s purse, or which servant seemed to possess far more wages than an honest servingman would carry. Years ago. So many years ago.
I heard a low moan from the Fool’s bed. I slung the jacket over my arm and hastened to his side. “Fool. Are you awake?”
His brow was lined, his eyes tightly closed, but at my voice something almost like a smile bent his mouth. “Fitz. It’s a dream, isn’t it?”
“No, my friend. You’re here at Buckkeep. And safe.”
“Oh, Fitz. I am never safe.” He coughed a bit. “I thought I was dead. I became aware, but then there wasn’t any pain, and I wasn’t cold. So I thought I was dead, finally. Then I moved, and all the pains woke up.”
“I’m sorry, Fool.” I was to blame for his most recent injuries. I hadn’t recognized him when I saw him clutching Bee. And so I had rushed to save my child from a diseased and possibly mad beggar, only to discover that the man I had stabbed half a dozen times was my oldest friend in the world. The swift Skill-healing I’d imposed had closed the knife wounds and kept him from bleeding to death. But it had weakened him as well, and in the course of that healing, I’d become aware of the multitude of old injuries and infections that still raged inside him. Those would kill him slowly, if I could not help him gain strength enough for a more thorough healing. “Are you hungry? There’s beef cooked to tenderness by the hearth. And red wine, and bread. And butter.”
He was silent for a time. His blind eyes were a dull gray in the dim light of the room. They moved in his face as if he still strove to see out of them. “Truly?” he asked in a shaky voice. “Truly all that food? Oh, Fitz. I almost don’t dare to move, lest I wake up and find the warmth and the blankets all a dream.”
“Shall I bring your food there, then?”
“No, no, don’t do that. I spill so badly. It’s not just that I can’t see, it’s my hands. They shake. And twitch.”
He moved his fingers and I felt ill. On one hand, all the soft pads of his fingers had been sliced away to leave thickly scarred tips. The knuckles of both hands were overly large on his bony fingers. Once he had had such elegant hands, such clever hands for juggling and puppetry and wood carving. I looked away from them. “Come, then. Let’s take you back to the chair by the fireside.”
“Let me lead, and you only warn me of a disaster. I’d like to learn the room. I’ve become quite clever at learning rooms since they blinded me.”
I could think of nothing to say to that. He leaned heavily on my arm but I let him make his own groping way. “More to the left,” I cautioned him once. He limped, as if every step on his swollen feet pained him. I wondered how he had managed to come so far, alone and blinded, following roads he could not see. Later, I told myself. There would be time for that tale later.
His reaching hand touched the chair’s back and then felt down it to the arm. It took him some time to maneuver himself into the chair and settle there. The sigh he gave was not one of contentment but of a difficult task accomplished. His fingers danced lightly on the tabletop. Then he stilled them in his lap. “The pain is bad, but even with the pain, I think I can manage the journey back. I will rest here, for a time, and heal a bit. Then, together, we will go to burn out that nest of vermin. But I will need my vision, Fitz. I must be a help to you, not a hindrance, as we make our way to Clerres. Together, we will bring them the justice they deserve.”
Justice. The word soaked into me. Chade had always called our assassin’s tasks “quiet work,” or “the king’s justice.” If I took on this quest of his, what would it be? The Fool’s justice. “Food in just a moment,” I said, letting his worry go unanswered for now.
I did not trust him to exercise restraint with how much food he took. I dished the food up for him, a small portion of meat cut into little bites and bread buttered and sliced into strips. I poured wine for him. I took his hand, thinking to guide it to the dish, but I had not warned him, and he jerked back as if I had burned him with a poker, nearly oversetting his dishes. “Sorry,” we exclaimed in unison. I grinned at that, but he did not.
“I was trying to show you where your food was,” I explained gently.
His head was bent as if he was looking down in shame. “I know,” he said quietly. Then, like timid mice, his crippled hands crept to the edge of the table, and ventured cautiously forward until he found the edge of his plate. His hands moved lightly over the dish, touching what was there. He picked up a piece of the meat and put it into his mouth. I started to tell him there was a fork at the side of his plate. I stopped myself. He knew that. I would not correct a tormented man as if he were a forgetful child. His hands crabbed over to the napkin and found it.
For a time, we ate together in silence. When he had finished what was on the plate, he asked softly if I would cut more meat and bread for him. As I did that, he asked suddenly, “So. How was your life while I was gone?”
For a moment, I froze. Then I transferred the cut meat to his plate. “It was a life,” I said, and was amazed at how steady my voice was. I groped for words: How does one summarize twenty-four years? How does one recount a courtship, a marriage, a child, and a widowing? I began.
“Well. That last time I left you? I became lost in the Skill-pillar on the way home. A passage that had taken but moments on my previous journeys took me months. When the pillar finally spat me out, I was near-senseless. And when I came to my wits, some days later, I found you had been and gone. Chade gave me your gift, the carving. I finally met Nettle. That did not go well, at first. I, uh, I courted Molly. We married.” My words ground to a halt. Even telling the tale in such bald terms, my heart broke over all I had had, and all I had lost. I wanted to say we had been happy. But I could not bear to put that in the past tense.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He spoke the formal words. From him, they were sincere. It took me aback for a few moments.
“How did you . . .?”
“How did I know?” He made a small incredulous sound. “Oh, Fitz. Why do you think I left? To leave you to find a life as close as possible to the one that I had always foreseen would follow my death. In so many futures, after my death, I saw you court Molly tirelessly, win her back, and finally take for yourself some of the happiness and peace that had always eluded you when I was near. In so many futures, I foresaw that she would die and you would be left alone. But that does not undo what you had, and that was the best I could wish for you. Years with your Molly. She loved you so.”
He resumed eating. I sat very still. My throat was clenched so tight that the pain nearly choked me. It was difficult even to breathe past that lump. Blind as he was, I think he still knew of my distress. For a long time he ate very slowly, as if to stretch out both the meal and the silence I needed. Slowly he wiped the last of the meat juices from his plate with his final bite of bread. He ate it, wiped his fingers on the napkin, and then walked his hand over to his wine. He lifted it and sipped, his face almost beatific. He set the cup down and then said quietly, “My memories of yesterday are very confusing to me.”
I held my silence.
“I had walked through most of the previous night, I think. I remember the snow, and knowing that I must not stop until I found some sort of shelter. I had a good stick, and that helps more than I can say when a man has no eyes, and bad feet. It’s hard for me to walk without a stick now. I knew I was on the road to Oaksbywater. Now I remember. A cart passed me, with the driver cursing and shouting at me to get out of the way. So I did. But I found his cart tracks in the snow and knew that if I followed them, they had to lead to some sort of shelter. So I walked. My feet got numb, and that meant less pain, but I fell more often. I think it was very late when I reached Oaksbywater. A dog barked at me, and someone shouted at it. The cart tracks led to a stable. I could not get inside, but there was a pile of straw and manure outside.” He folded his lips for a moment and then said wryly, “I’ve learned that dirty straw and manure are often warm.”
I nodded, then realized he could not see me. “They are,” I conceded.
“I slept a bit, and then woke when the town started to stir around me. I heard a girl singing and recognized one of the old Winterfest songs from when I lived at Buckkeep. And so I knew it might be a good day to beg. Holidays bring out the kindness in some people. I thought I would beg and try to get some food in me and then, if I encountered someone who seemed kind, I would ask them to put me on the path to Withywoods.”
“So you were coming to find me.”
He nodded slowly. His hand crept back to his wine cup. He found it, drank sparingly, and set it down. “Of course I was coming to find you. So. I was begging, but the shopkeeper kept ranting at me to move on. I knew I should. But I was so tired, and the place where I had settled was out of the wind. Wind is a cruel thing, Fitz. A day that is cold but bearable when the air is still becomes a constant torment when a wind rises.” His voice fell away and he hunched his shoulders as if even the memory of wind could freeze him now.
“Then, hmm. A boy came by. He gave me an apple. Then the shopkeeper cursed me and shouted at her husband to come and drive me off. And the boy helped me to move away from the door. And . . .” The Fool’s words trailed away. His head moved, wagging from side to side. I did not think he was aware of it. It reminded me of a hound casting about for a lost scent. Then plaintive words burst from him. “It was so vivid, Fitz! He was the son I was seeking. The boy touched me and I could see with his vision. I could feel the strength he might have, someday, if he was trained, if he was not corrupted by the Servants. I’d found him and I could not contain my joy.” Yellowish tears spilled slowly from his eyes and began to track down his scarred face. All too well, I recalled the request that he had sent his messengers to give me: that I search for the “Unexpected Son.” His son? A child he had fathered, despite all I knew of him? In the time since his messenger had reached me and then died, I’d mulled over a dozen possibilities as to who the mother of such a son might be.
“I found him,” the Fool continued. “And I lost him. When you stabbed me.”
Shame and guilt washed over me in a wave. “Fool, I am so sorry. If only I had recognized you, I never would have hurt you.”
He shook his head. One clawlike hand found his napkin. He mopped his face with it. His words came out as hoarse as a crow’s caw. “What happened, Fitz? What . . . provoked you to try to kill me?”
“I mistook you for someone dangerous. Someone that would hurt a child. I came out of the tavern, looking for my little girl.”
“Your little girl?” His words broke through my explanation in an incredulous shout.
“Yes. My Bee.” Despite all else, I smiled. “Molly and I had a child together, Fool, a tiny girl.”
“No.” His denial was absolute. “No. Not in any future I saw did you have another child.” His brow was furrowed. Scarred as his face was, it was not easy to read his emotions, but he looked almost furious. “I know I would have seen that. I am the true White Prophet. I would have seen that.” He slapped his hand on the table, jerked with the pain, and cradled it to his chest. “I would have seen that,” he insisted again, more quietly.
“But we did,” I said softly. “I know it’s hard to believe. We thought we couldn’t. Molly told me her time for bearing was past. But then she had Bee. Our little girl.”
“No.” He said the word stubbornly. He pinched his lips flat together, and then abruptly his chin trembled like a child’s. “It can’t be. Fitz, it can’t be so. How can that be true? If I did not see such an immense event in your life, what else did I miss? How wrong can I have been about so many other things? Was I wrong about myself?” He fell silent for a time. His blind eyes shifted back and forth, trying to find me. “Fitz. Do not be angry that I ask this, for I must.” He hesitated and then asked in a whisper, “Are you sure? Can you be positive? Are you certain the child was yours, and not just Molly’s?”
“She is mine,” I said flatly. I was astonished at how much insult I took at his words. “Definitely mine,” I added defiantly. “She has a Mountain look to her, like my mother.”
“The mother you scarcely remember.”
“I remember her enough to say that my child looks like her. And I remember Molly well enough to know that Bee is my daughter. Without question. Fool, this is not worthy of you.”
He lowered his eyes and stared at his lap. “So few things are, anymore,” he decided. He rose with a lurch that shook the table. “I’m going back to bed. I don’t feel well.” He shuffled away from me, one knotted hand feeling the air before him while the other curled protectively near his chin.
“I know you’re not well,” I replied, suddenly repentant for how harshly I’d rebuked him. “You are not yourself, Fool. But you will be again. You will be.”
“Do you think so?” he asked. He did not turn toward me but spoke to the empty air in front of him. “I am not certain of that myself. I’ve spent over a decade with people who insisted that I was never who I thought I was. Never the White Prophet, only a boy with vivid dreams. And what you have just told me makes me wonder if they had the right of it.”
I hated seeing him so defeated. “Fool. Remember what you told me so long ago. We move now in a time that you never foresaw. One where we are both alive.”
He made no response to my words. He reached the bed, groped along the edge, then turned and sat down on it. Then he more crumpled than lay down, pulled the covers up over his head, and was completely still.
“I tell you the truth, old friend. I have a daughter, a small girl who depends on me. And I cannot leave her. I must be the one to raise her, to teach her and protect her. It’s a duty I can’t forsake. And one I do not want to.” I tidied as I spoke, wiping away the food he had spilled, corking the remainder of the wine. I waited and my heart continued to sink as he made no response. Finally I said, “What you asked me to do last night. I’d do it for you. You know that. If I could, I would. But now I ask you, as you asked me last night: For my sake, understand that I must say no to you. For now.”
The silence unspooled like a dropped ball of yarn. I’d said the words I must, and their sense would soak into him. He was not a selfish man, nor a cruel one. He’d recognize the truth of what I had told him. I couldn’t go anywhere with him, no matter how badly someone needed to be killed. I had a child to raise and protect. Bee had to come first. I smoothed the bedclothes on my side of the bed. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep. I spoke softly.
“I can’t be here this evening,” I told him. “Chade has a task for me. It may be very late before I come back. Will you be all right alone?”
Still no response. I wondered if he truly had fallen asleep that quickly, or if he was sulking. Leave it alone, Fitz, I counseled myself. He was a sick man. Rest would do more for him than anything else.