What is a secret? It is much more than knowledge shared with only a few, or perhaps only one other. It is power. It is a bond. It may be a sign of deep trust, or the darkest threat possible.
There is power in the keeping of a secret, and power in the revelation of a secret. Sometimes it takes a very wise man to discern which is the path to greater power.
All men desirous of power should become collectors of secrets. There is no secret too small to be valuable. All men value their own secrets far above those of others. A scullery maid may be willing to betray a prince before allowing the name of her secret lover to be told.
Be very chary of telling your hoarded secrets. Many lose all power once they have been divulged. Be even more careful of sharing your own secrets lest you find yourself a puppet dancing on someone else’s strings.
I’d not eaten much, but my appetite was gone. I tidied our table. The Fool was either asleep or feigning it perfectly. I resigned myself to silence from him. With some trepidation, I dressed myself in the clothing that Chade had provided for Lord Feldspar. It fit me well enough, though it was looser around the chest and belly than I had expected. I was surprised at how comfortable it was. I transferred a few of the items from one concealed pocket to another. I sat down to put on the shoes. They had more of a heel than I was accustomed to, and extended far past my foot before terminating in upcurled toes decorated with little tassels. I tried a few steps in them, and then walked the length of the chamber five times until I was certain that I could move with confidence and not trip myself.
Chade had a large looking-glass of excellent quality, as much for his own vanity as for the training of his apprentices. I recall one long night when he had me stand in front of it for most of a watch, trying to smile first sincerely, then disarmingly, then sarcastically, then humbly . . . his list had gone on and on, until my face ached. Now I lifted a branch of candles and looked at Lord Feldspar of Spiretop. There was also a hat, rather like a soft bag, edged with gilt embroidery and a row of decorative buttons and incorporating a fine wig of brown ringlets. I set it on my head and wondered if it was supposed to wilt over to one side as much as it did.
Chade kept a tinker’s tray of odd jewelry in the cupboard. I chose two showy rings for myself and hoped they would not turn my fingers green. I warmed water, shaved, and inspected myself again. I had just resigned myself to creeping out of the room under the smelly garments from Lady Thyme’s old wardrobe when I felt a slight draft. I stood still, listening, and at just the right moment I asked, “Don’t you think it’s time you entrusted me with the trick of triggering that door?”
“I suppose I will have to, now that you are Lord Feldspar and inhabiting the room below.” Chade stepped around the corner, halted, and then nodded his approval at my attire. “The trigger is not where you’d think it would be. It’s not even on this wall. Look here.” He walked to the hearth, swung a brick aside, mortar and all, and showed me a black iron lever. “It’s a bit stiff. I’ll have the boy grease it later.” And so saying, he pulled the lever and the draft was abruptly closed off.
“How do you open the door from my old room?” I’d lost count of how many hours I’d spent searching for that trigger when I was a boy.
He sighed and then smiled. “One after another, my secrets have fallen to you. I’ll confess, I’ve always been amused by your inability to find that one. I thought that surely you would stumble on it by accident if nothing else. It’s in the drapery pull. Close the curtains completely, and then give a final tug. You won’t see or hear a thing, but you can push the door open. And now you know.”
“And now I know,” I agreed. “After half a century of wondering.”
“Surely not half a century.”
“I’m sixty,” I reminded him. “And you started me in the trade when I was less than ten. So, yes, half a century and more.”
“Don’t remind me of my years,” he told me, and then sat down with a sigh. “It’s unfair of you to prate of passing time when it seems to touch you not at all. Tip your hat a bit more to the back. That’s it. Before you go, we’ll redden your nose a little and give you higher color in your cheeks so it will appear you’ve begun your drinking early. And we’ll thicken your brows.” He tilted his head to consider me critically. “That should be enough to keep anyone from recognizing you. What’s this?” he demanded, pulling Bee’s parcel toward him.
“Something that I’d like to dispatch immediately to Withywoods. Things for Bee. I had to leave her quite abruptly, in a very peculiar way. It’s the first Winterfest since her mother died. I’d hoped to be there with her.”
“It will be on its way within the day,” he promised me gravely. “I sent a small troop of guards there this morning. If I’d known you had a message, I would have sent it with them. They’ll travel swiftly.”
“It has little gifts for her from the market. For a late Winterfest surprise. Wait, you sent a troop of guards? Why?”
“Fitz, where are your wits? You left Shun and FitzVigilant there, unprotected. You haven’t even door guards. Luckily I’ve one or two fellows about the place who know their business. Not much muscle among them, but keen eyes. They’ll warn Lant if they see anything threatening. And weather permitting, my troop will be there in three days or so. They’re a rough band, but I’ve seen that their commander is bringing them around. Captain Stout keeps them on a taut leash, until he lets them loose. And then nothing stops them.” He sounded very satisfied with his choice. He drummed his fingers on the table edge. “The daily bird hasn’t arrived, but sometimes that happens when the weather is foul.”
“Fitz, I am a thorough man. I watch over my own. That includes you, for all your years there. And now, when a messageless bird arrives, I know that all is well for Lant and Shun as well. It’s only sensible.”
I’d known he had at least one watcher in place at Withywoods. I hadn’t realized that a daily report was sent to him. Well, not a report. A bird with no message meant all was well. “Chade, I’m ashamed that I gave no thought to the safety of Shun and FitzVigilant when I brought the Fool here. You entrusted them to me. It was a dire situation: I’m afraid it drove all other thoughts out of my head.”
He was nodding as I spoke, his face grave and his mouth without expression. I’d disappointed him. He cleared his throat and very deliberately shifted the topic. “So. Do you think you can masquerade as Lord Feldspar for an evening or three? It would be very handy for me to have a man mingling with the crowd who knew how to listen and how to steer a conversation.”
“I think I can still do that.” I felt abashed at failing him. This was the least I could do. “What were you hoping to discover?”
“Oh, the usual. Anything interesting. Who is trying to make deals out of sight of the crown? Who has been offering bribes to get better trading terms; who has been taking bribes? What is the general feeling about placating the dragons? Of course, the most valuable information you can discover would be any little facts that we aren’t expecting.”
“Do I have any specific targets?”
“Five. No, six, perhaps.” He scratched his ear. “I trust you to find a trail and follow it. I’ll make some suggestions, but keep your ears open for any interesting propositions.”
And for the next few hours he educated me in the various seesaws of power currently in play in the Six Duchies. He described each of the four men and two women that he wished me to spy upon, right down to their preferences for drink, which ones used smoke, and the two who were rumored to be meeting behind their spouses’ backs. Chade gave me a swift tutoring on copper mining so that I could at least appear knowledgeable, and advised me to maintain a crafty silence should anyone ask me detailed questions about my operations or the new vein of ore we had reportedly discovered.
And for a time, I put my life back in the old man’s hands. It would not be fair to say that I forgot my grief at losing Molly or stopped worrying about Bee or resigned myself to the Fool’s declining health. What I did was step outside of my real life and step back into one in which all I had to do was obey Chade’s directives and report back to him what I had learned. There was deep comfort in that. It was almost healing to discover that despite all I had been through, all my losses and all my daily fears and worries, I was still Fitz and this was something I was still very good at.
When he had finished schooling me for my task, he tilted his head toward the Fool’s bed. “How is he?”
“Not himself. In pain and emotionally frail. I upset him and he went back to his bed. And immediately fell asleep.”
“Not surprising. You’re wise to let him sleep.” He picked up Bee’s parcel, weighed it in his hand, and smiled indulgently. “I doubt that any child in Buckkeep Castle will get a heftier sack of holiday loot than this. I’ve an excellent courier. He’ll ride out tonight.”
“Thank you,” I said humbly.
He wagged a dismissive finger at me and then left, taking the package with him. I descended the hidden staircase to the room that had been mine when I was young and closed the door behind me. I halted there briefly to admire the staging of the room. There was a traveling case, of good quality but dusty and battered as if it had come a long way. It was open and partially unpacked, with items of clothing draped carelessly over the chair. Several of the new-appearing items featured a plenitude of buttons. I made a cursory examination of the trunk’s contents. In addition to a selection of clothes that would fit me and were not obviously new, there was all that a man would be likely to pack for an extended stay. Anyone who sought to slip the lock on my room and inspect my things would most likely be convinced that I was indeed Lord Feldspar, right down to my monogrammed kerchiefs. I tucked one of those into my pocket and descended to the merrymaking of Winterfest eve in Buckkeep.
And, oh, how I loved it. There was music and excellent food; drink of all manner flowed freely. Some people were enjoying smoke in tiny braziers at their tables. Young ladies in their best dresses flirted outrageously with young men in bright and impractical garb. More buttons. And I was not the only one in heeled slippers with twirled toes. Indeed my footwear was among the more modest in that regard. It made the lively dances of Winterfest a true contest of agility, and more than one youngster was brought low by an untimely slip.
I had only one bad moment, when I glimpsed Web across the room. I became aware of Buckkeep’s Witmaster in a way that I can’t describe. I think as he quested toward me with his Wit, wondering why I seemed familiar, I somehow became aware of the magic’s touch on me. I turned away and made an excuse to leave that area of the room. I did not see him again that evening.
I located those Chade had bid me find, and insinuated myself into conversations. I appeared to drink a great deal more than I really did, and thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of a mildly inebriated lordling who bragged indiscreetly about the newfound wealth of his holdings. I moved among the merchants and tradesfolk rather than near the dais where the nobility and royalty congregated to socialize with trade delegates from Bingtown, Jamaillia, and Kelsingra. I caught only passing glimpses of Lady Kettricken, dressed in a simple gown of pale yellow with trim of Buckkeep blue.
King Dutiful and Queen Elliania passed through the chamber, pacing sedately, accepting and bestowing greetings from the lesser nobles and well-placed merchants. Dutiful was appropriately solemn and kingly. He had recently begun to cultivate a well-groomed beard, which added to his gravitas. The queen smiled, and her hand rode on the back of Dutiful’s forearm. Her crown sat on a short crop of black curls not much longer than mine; I’d heard she had not allowed her hair to grow since she had lost a girl infant. This marked sign of her continued mourning troubled me even as I too well understood it, but I was glad to see her at the gathering.
The wild girl I had once watched leaping her pony over obstacles was a child no longer. She was small and dark, and one might have expected tall, blond Kettricken, the former Queen of the Six Duchies, to dominate the festivities. But she did not. The two had come into an accord years ago, and balanced each other well. Whereas Kettricken urged the kingdom to embrace new ways, new trading partners, and new ways of doing things, Elliania was a traditionalist. Her matriarchal upbringing in the Out Islands had imbued her with confidence in her right to rule. Her two sons walked behind her, impeccably attired in Buckkeep blue, yet every silver button on their garments featured their mother’s leaping narwhal. I’d known them as babies and as small boys. Those days were long gone now. They were young men now, and Prince Integrity wore the simple crown of the king-in-waiting. Prince Prosper favored his Outislander mother but had developed the Farseer brow. I smiled as the royal family passed, tears of pride stinging my eyes. Our doing, the Fool’s and mine. Peace between the Six Duchies and the Out Islands at last. I feigned a cough to dab at my watering eyes. I turned aside hastily and pushed my way deeper into the crowd. That sort of behavior would never suit Lord Feldspar. Control yourself, Fitz.
Lord Feldspar, Chade and I had decided, bore a greedy merchant’s heart beneath his noble title. He would have no tender feelings toward his rulers, only a stony resolve to retain as much of his tax money as he could. I played my role well. To every minor noble that deigned to introduce himself, I muttered disconsolately over how much of my taxes had gone to fund these festivities and snarled at the thought of my money used to subsidize meat herds for dragons. Dragons! Those with the bad fortune to live near the dragons’ hunting territories should feed them. Or move. It was not up to me to pay for their poor choices! I insinuated myself into conversations near my targets and made sure my complaints were audible.
I had expected that one of our noble guests would propose bypassing the tax collectors of the Six Duchies, but when I was finally targeted it was by a young man from Farrow. He was not a lord or a merchant, but the son of a man who operated freight barges on the river. He smiled and spoke me fair and made a dedicated effort to ply me with stronger drink. He was not one of Chade’s targets, but his sly hints that there was money to be made by a man who knew how to bypass the taxing agents at the river- and seaports made me think he was a thread that would bear following. I used the Skill to reach out mentally to Chade and became aware that my old mentor was using Thick’s strength to help him be fully aware not only of King Dutiful but of several of the coterie members. I kept my sending to him private and small as I drew his attention to my drinking partner.
Ah. Well done. That was all he Skilled back to me, but I shared his sense of satisfaction and knew I had given him the bit of information that made sense of some puzzle he had been working to solve.
I separated myself from the young man to mingle and wander for several hours more. Winterfest was a significant holiday and the dukes and duchesses of all the Six Duchies were in attendance. I saw and was not seen as I recognized many an old friend or acquaintance from my earlier years. Duchess Celerity of Bearns had aged gracefully. Several lifetimes ago she had taken a fancy to FitzChivalry. I hoped she had had a good life. The little lad trotting at her heels was probably a grandson. Perhaps even a great-grandson. There were others, not just nobles but servingfolk and tradesmen. Not as many as I would have recognized a score of years ago. Time’s nets had dragged many of them from this life.
The night grew deep, and the room was warm with the press of bodies and the sweat of the dancers. I was not surprised when the young river trader sought me out to introduce me to a very friendly sea captain from Bingtown. He introduced himself as a New Trader, and immediately shared with me that he had little patience for the Bingtown system of tithes and levies on foreign goods. “The Old Traders are wedged in their ways. If they will not shake off the past and realize they must open their doors to less restricted trade, well, there are those who will find a window.” I nodded to him and asked if I might call on him the day after Winterfest. He gave me a small shingle of wood with the name of his ship and his own name lettered onto its smooth surface. He was staying at the Bloody Hounds near the warehouse docks and would look forward to my visit. Another fish for Chade’s net.
For a time, I indulged myself and took a seat at one of the lesser hearths to hear a minstrel recite a traditional Winterfest tale. When I went seeking some chilled cider, a young woman who had had too much to drink caught me by the arm and demanded that I dance the next measure with her. She could not have been more than twenty, and to me she suddenly seemed a foolish child in a dangerous place. I wondered where her parents were and how they could leave her drunken and alone in the midst of the festival.
But I danced with her, one of the old partner-dances, and despite my fancy toes and lifted heels managed to keep to the steps and mark the time correctly. It was a merry dance, and she was a pretty girl with dark curls and brown eyes and layers upon layers of skirts, all in shades of blue. Yet by the end of the dance I was filled to brimming with loneliness and a deep sadness for all the years that were now behind me. I thanked her, escorted her to a seat near the hearth, and then slipped away. My Winterfest eve, I thought, was over, and I suddenly missed a little hand in mine and big blue eyes looking up at me. For the first time in my life, I wished my little girl had the Skill so that I could reach out to her across the snowy distance and assure her that I loved her and missed her.
As I sought my room, I knew that Chade would be as good as his word. Doubtless a messenger was already in the saddle on his way to Withywoods, my parcel and note in his pack. Yet it would be days before she received it and knew that I had thought of her in the midst of the festivities. Why had I never accepted Chade’s offer to give me a Skilled apprentice at Withywoods, one who could, in my absence, relay news and messages from there? It would have still been a poor substitute for holding my child in my arms and whirling her in a dance at midnight, but it would have been something.
Bee, I love you, I Skilled out, as if somehow that errant thought could reach her. I felt the soft brush of Nettle’s and Chade’s shared thought: I’d had as much drink as was good for me. And perhaps I had, for I Skilled to them, I miss her so.
Neither one had a reply to that, so I bade them good night.