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Chapter Nineteen

The Strategy

 . . . but the island is surrounded by a magic, so that only those who have been there can return there. No stranger can find his way. Yet, rarely, pale children are born, and without ever having been there, they recall the path, and so they importune their parents until they are taken there, to grow slowly old and wise.

On that island, in a castle built of giants’ bones, lives a white seer, surrounded by her servants. She has predicted every possible end of the world, and her servants write down every word she utters, scribing it with bird’s-blood ink onto parchment made from sea-serpent hide. It is said that her servants are fed on the flesh and blood of sea serpents, so that they may remember pasts far beyond their own births, and these, too, they record.

If a stranger wishes to go there, he must find for a guide one born there, and he must be sure to take with him four gifts: one of copper, one of silver, one of gold, and one made from the bone of a man. And those of copper and gold cannot be simple coins, but must be rare jewelry, made by the cleverest of smiths. With these tokens, each in a pouch of black silk tied with a white ribbon, the traveler must approach the guide and speak the following charm: “With copper I buy your speaking, with silver I buy your thoughts, with gold I buy your memories, and with a bone I bind your body so that you must accompany me on a journey to the land of your birth.” Then that one will take from the seeker the four pouches and speak to him and remember true and guide him to his birth-home.

But even then, the traveler’s way may not be easy, for while the guide is bound to take him to Clerrestry, nothing can bind him to take him by the straightest road, nor to speak to him in plain talk.

—An Outislander minstrel’s tale, recorded by Chade

I twitched awake to a soft tapping. I was dressed, on the bed. Light through the shutters on my window told me it was day. I rubbed my face, trying to wake myself, and then wished I hadn’t. The puckering seam on my brow was sore now. The tapping came again.

“Ash?” I called softly, and then realized it was coming from the hidden door rather than the one that gave onto the corridor. “Fool?” I queried, and in response heard “Motley, Motley, Motley.” Ah. The crow. I triggered the door and, as it swung open, she hopped out into my room.

“Food, food, food?” she asked.

“I’m sorry. I’ve nothing here for you.”

“Fly. Fly, fly, fly!”

“Let me look at you first.”

She hopped closer to me and I went down on one knee to inspect her. The ink seemed to be lasting. I could not see any white on her. “I’ll let you out, for I know you must ache to fly. But if you are wise you will avoid your own kind.”

She said nothing to that but watched me as I went to the window and opened it. It was a blue-sky day. I looked out over castle walls topped with an extra rampart of snow. I had expected it to be dawn. It wasn’t. I had slept all the night and part of the morning away. She hopped to the sill and launched without a backward glance. I closed the window and then secured the secret door. The cold air on my face had tightened the faulty stitches. They had to come out. The Fool was blind, and taking them out myself would require holding a mirror with one hand and picking at them with the other. I certainly did not want to call back the healer who had done this to me.

Without thinking, I reached for Chade. Could you help me remove the stitches in my brow? My body is trying to heal and the stitches are puckering the flesh.

I felt him there, at the end of my Skill-thread. He drifted like a gull riding the breeze. Then he said softly, I can see the warmth of the flames through the spy-hole. It’s cold here but I must stay for the whole watch. I hate him so. I want to go home. I just want to go home.

Chade? Are you dreaming? You’re safe home, in Buckkeep Castle.

I want to go back to our little farm. I should have inherited it, not him. He had no right to send me away like this. I miss my mother. Why did she have to die?

Chade. Wake up! It’s a bad dream!

Fitz. Stop, please. Nettle shushed me. Her Skilling to me was tight and private. None of her apprentices or journeymen would hear us. We are trying to keep him calm. I’m looking for a dream that might soothe him and give him a road back to us. But I seem to find only his nightmares. Come to his room, and I’ll see to your stitches.

Remember to come as Prince FitzChivalry! Dutiful cut in, riding her stream of thought. You caused enough talk when you stole that horse. I’ve bought it for you, at twice what any horse should be worth! I’ve tried to explain it was a mistake, that you’d ordered up a horse and thought the roan was for you. But be circumspect with any you meet and try to avoid conversation. We are still trying to construct a plausible history for you. If anyone comments on your youthful appearance, imply that it’s an effect from your years among the Elderlings. And please be suitably mysterious about that!

I affirmed that in a tight Skill-sending to Dutiful. Then I considered myself carefully in the looking-glass. I was seething with impatience to go after Bee, but riding out randomly was as likely to take me farther away from her as to put me on her trail. I tamped down my frustration. I had to wait. Stand and wait. The Fool’s suggestion that we dash off to Clerres, a journey of months, seemed premature to me. Every day that I traveled south was another day of Bee held captive by Chalcedeans. Better by far to recapture Bee and Shun sooner rather than later, before they could be carried out of the Six Duchies. Now that we knew who and what they were, it seemed unlikely to me that they could elude our search efforts. The reports would come back here, to Buckkeep. Surely somewhere, someone had seen a sign of them.

And in the meanwhile, I resolved to be as tractable as I could. I’d already created enough difficulties for Dutiful and Nettle. And I had a feeling I was going to be asking for a great deal of help from them and the royal treasury. They would do it for love of me and Bee, regardless of the cost. But it was going to be difficult for the king to lend me the men-at-arms I would require without anyone making a firm connection between Tom Badgerlock’s stolen child, the raid on Withywoods, and the long-missing FitzChivalry. It would be even more difficult with Chade wandering in a wound fever and unable to apply his cleverness to the problem. The least I could do was not make their political puppetry any more difficult.

Political puppetry. While brutes held my child captive. Rage swelled in me. I felt my heart surge and my muscles swell with it. I wanted to fight, to kill those Chalcedeans as I’d stabbed and bitten and throttled Chade’s attackers.

Fitz? Is there a threat?

Nothing, Dutiful. Nothing. Nothing I had a target for. Yet.

When I emerged from my room, I was shaved and my hair groomed back into as much of a warrior’s tail as I could boast. My clothing was the least colorful of the garb that Ash had set aside as fitting for Prince FitzChivalry. I wore the simple sword at my hip, a privilege of my rank within Buckkeep. Ash had polished my boots to a gloss, and the earring I wore had what appeared to be a real sapphire in it. The frilly half-cloak with the lace edges was an annoyance, but I had decided I must trust Ash and hope such foolish garb was not a boy’s prank.

The halls of the castle, which had been thronged with folk for Winterfest, were quieter now. I strode along them confidently, giving a smile to any servant I encountered. I’d reached the stair that would take me to the level of the royal apartments and Chade’s elaborate rooms when a tall woman suddenly pushed off the wall she had been leaning on. Her gray hair was pulled back in a warrior’s tail and her easy stance told me she was perfectly balanced on her feet. She could attack or flee in an instant. I was suddenly very alert. She smiled at me and I wondered if I’d have to kill her to get past her. She spoke softly. “Hey, Fitz. Are you hungry? Or are you too proud now to join me in the guards’ mess?”

Her eyes met mine and she waited. It took a time for my memory to travel back that many years. “Captain Foxglove?” I managed to guess.

The smile on her face warmed and her eyes gleamed. “I wondered if you’d know me, after all these years. We’re a long way from Neat Bay in distance and time. But I’ve made a bet, and a large one, that a Farseer doesn’t forget who had his back.”

I immediately extended a hand and we clasped wrists. Her grip was almost as firm as it had once been, and I was immensely glad she wasn’t there to kill me.

“And it’s many a year since anyone called me captain. But you, what have you been up to? That slash looks no more than a week old.”

I touched it self-consciously. “It’s a humiliating tale, of a very foolish encounter with the corner of a stone wall.”

She shook her head at that. “Odd that it looks like a sword-slash. I can see that what I have to tell you would have been better told a month ago. Come with me, please.”

Delayed, I Skilled small and tight to Dutiful and Nettle. Captain Foxglove wishes a word with me.

Who? Dutiful demanded worriedly.

She guarded your mother at the Battle of Neat Bay. Kettricken will recall her, I think.

Oh.

I wondered how much he knew of that tale, and as my recollection of that bloody day trickled through my mind, I strode along beside the old woman. She still had the upright bearing of a guardsman and the long stride of one who can quick-march for miles. But as we walked, she said, “I haven’t been a captain in the guards for many years, my prince. When the Red-Ship War was finally over I married, and we managed to have three children before I was too old to bear. And in their time, they gave Red Ross and me a dozen grandchildren. You?”

“No grandchildren yet,” I said.

“So Lady Nettle’s child will be your first, then?”

“My first grandchild,” I confirmed. The words were strange in my mouth.

We clattered down the stairs side by side and I was strangely glad of the envious looks other servants bestowed on her as we passed them. Time was when friendship with the Bastard had not been something to prize, but she had given it to me. Down we went, to the level of the castle where the real work was done, threading past the laundry folk with their baskets of linens both clean and dirty, past pages balancing trays of food, and a carpenter and his journeyman, and three apprentices off to repair something in the castle. Past the kitchens where once Cook had reigned and made me her favorite despite the political ramifications. And to the arched doorway that led to the guards’ mess, where the clamor of hungry folk eating seldom ceased.

Foxglove flung up a hand to my chest and halted me there. She met my gaze, looking straight into my eyes. Her hair was gray and lines framed her mouth but her dark eyes snapped bright as ever. “You’re a Farseer, and I know a true Farseer remembers his debts. I’m here on behalf of my granddaughter and a grandson. I know you’ll remember the days when a few words from you made me and Whistle and a handful of other good soldiers leave King Verity’s guard to put on the purple and white and the fox badge for our foreign queen. You remember that, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Then ready a smile, sir. Your time has come.”

She gestured for me to precede her. I entered the room, braced with dread and ready for anything. Except for someone to shout, “Hep!” and have every guard at the table suddenly surge to his feet. Benches scraped loudly against the floor as they were pushed back. One mug teetered precariously as the table gave a bounce. Then it settled and silence filled the room of men and women standing tall and formally alert to greet me. I caught my breath.

Many years ago, King-in-Waiting Verity had fashioned a sigil for me. I’d been the only one to wear it. It had been the Farseer buck, but with his head lowered to charge rather than the lofty pose that a king’s son would wear. And across it there had been the red bend that marked me as a bastard even as the buck acknowledged my bloodlines.

Now I faced a room of standing guards, and half a dozen of them wore the slashed buck on their chests. Their jerkins were Buck blue, with a stripe of red down the breast. I stared, speechless.

“Sit down, you idiots. It’s still just the Fitz,” Foxglove announced. Oh, she was enjoying this, and when a few of the youngsters in the room gasped at her temerity, she compounded it by taking my arm and tugging me to a place at one of the long benches at the table. “Push the ale pitcher down this way, and some of the black bread and the white cheese. He may sit at the high table now, but he was raised on guardroom rations.”

And so I sat, and someone poured a mug for me, and I wondered how this could feel so good and so strange and so terrible all at once. My daughter was missing and in danger, and here I sat, grinning foolishly as an old woman explained that it was time I had my own guard, and although her other grandchildren were all members of Kettricken’s guard, her two youngest hadn’t given an oath yet. As the rest of the guards settled at the table, smirking at one another to see a Farseer “prince” sharing their common fare, they could not know that food had seldom tasted better to me. This dark bread and sharp cheese and the ale that foamed over the top of the tankard were the foods that had sustained me through many a dark hour. It was the best feast I could imagine for this peculiarly triumphal moment.

Foxglove herded two youngsters toward me, a hand on each of their shoulders. Neither could have been over twenty, and the girl visibly straightened herself to try to be taller. “They are cousins, but as alike as two kits from the same litter. This is Sharp and here is Ready. They’re already wearing your badge. Will you take their oaths now?”

“Does King Dutiful know of all this?” I spoke the words aloud as I Skilled them tightly to Dutiful. Thought is fast. He witnessed my dilemma instantly and I felt his amusement at it.

“If he doesn’t, he should,” Foxglove responded tartly, and mugs thumped the table in agreement. “I don’t recall your asking permission before the white fox badge marked a guard troop.”

“Oh, that was you and Whistle, not I!” I rejoined, and she laughed.

“Perhaps. But I recall it differently.” Then her face grew sober. “Ah, Whistle. She went too fast, didn’t she?” She cleared her throat. “My infants, draw your knives and present them to Fitz . . . to Prince FitzChivalry. We’ll do this the old way.”

Old it was, so old I did not know it, but she walked us through it, and five others followed. She nicked the back of my left hand, and as the tip of her knife moved my blood onto the outstretched palm of the boy, she told him, “The blood of the Farseers rests in your hands, for you to protect. You hold his life in your hands, now and whenever you draw blade in his name. Do not dishonor it, nor put your life ahead of his.”

There was more and I became aware of first Dutiful and then Nettle joining me as the guards wearing my badge came to me one at a time. They swore their blades to me and took my blood into their hands and I tried to breathe and keep some measure of royal poise as I did so. As the last one rose, taking back from me his sworn blade, I felt a breath of Skill from Nettle. That was beautiful.

I’ll wager Fitz is weeping like a maiden. This from Dutiful, wryly, but I could feel that he was as moved as Nettle had been.

Or weeping like a man who is finally welcomed home, Nettle responded tartly.

What do I do with them now? I was a bit dazed.

Quarter them. Clothe them. Pay them. Make sure they keep discipline and practice daily. Isn’t being royal fun? You’re going to need staff, Fitz. The people who do all the things that need doing.

I don’t have time for this! I have to go after Bee!

With them at your heels, Fitz. You’ll need them. But most of them look as green as grass. Do you want me to choose one of my captains and send him to you?

I think I’ve a better idea. I hope.

My silence during my conversation with Dutiful had been taken for gravitas. I turned my gaze on Foxglove. “Captain Foxglove, I’d like your blade now.”

She stared at me. “I’m an old woman, Fitz. I left the guard many years ago, after our king drove the Red Ships from our shores. I liked peace. I wed, I had children, and I saw them every day. Now I’m old. I’ve a bad elbow, and my knees are stiff, and my eyesight is not what it was.”

“But your mind is. You can refuse me if you wish. I imagine you’ve a home and a husband and . . .”

“Red Ross is gone for many a year now.” She stood very still. I watched memories flicker through her eyes. Then she spoke in a whisper as she drew a humble hip-knife from her belt. “If you still wish to have my blade, I’ll swear it to you, Fitz.”

“I do. I’ll need someone to keep these puppies in order.”

And so I opened the small wound on my hand afresh, and put my blood into the palm of one who had already held the lives of Farseers in her hands. I would not allow her to go down on her knees to me, but took her promise from her standing. “Face-to-face, as we once stood back-to-back,” I told her. She smiled and every guardsman in the room cheered her.

“And my orders, sir?” she asked.

“To do what you think best. You know far better than I how to captain them. Quarter them, clothe them, see they don’t break discipline, and take them to the practice yards. And pay them when their pay is due.” I tried not to betray that I had no idea where those funds would be coming from.

Guards are paid from the treasury. I’ll let Lady Lightfoot know that we’ve a new troop. Right now Chade is awake and almost sensible. My mother is with him. Nettle and I will meet you there.

On my way.

But it took me some little time to pry myself loose from the guards’ mess. I had to lift a toast to my new captain of the guard, and confirm several tales she had told of the battle of Neat Bay. Thankfully none of them touched on my legendary ability to change myself into a wolf and rip out throats. Finally I was able to leave Foxglove at the head of the table with her two grandchildren beaming with pride as I slipped away.

I lowered my head as if in deep thought and strode hastily through the corridors and up the stairs of Buckkeep Castle, everything about me saying I was a man who had no time to stop for words. My concern for Bee vied with my concern for Chade. I needed him to help me sort through all the Fool had told me about the Servants. Chade, if anyone, would know how to outfox them. I needed him for every aspect of my return to life at Buckkeep. It was unmanning to realize how much I depended on him. I tried to imagine the court at Buckkeep without him. Or my life without him manipulating all sorts of events from behind the curtains like a very clever puppeteer. I’d been counting on him to manufacture and release plausible explanations for where I had been and my connection to Tom Badgerlock, if there was to be one. How quickly would the news flow from Withywoods to Withy and then to Oaksbywater? I would deal with it. Once I had Bee back, I would deal with everything else, I vowed to myself, and took the last flight of steps two at a time.

A page with a tray of emptied dishes was just leaving Chade’s room, and behind her came a cavalcade of healers with basins and soiled bandages and baskets of supplies for treating wounds. They bobbed greetings to me as they passed, and I returned them. As the last one left, I slipped in the open door.

Chade rested in grand fashion in the midst of his emerald-green bedding and cushions. The heavy curtains around his bed had been pulled back. A large, cheery fire burned on the hearth, and the room was warmly lit with candles. Kettricken was there, gowned simply in white and purple. She sat in a chair near the head of Chade’s bed, some bit of needlework in her hands. King Dutiful stood at the foot of his bed, formally attired in heavy robes. His crown dangled from his fingertips. I suspected he had just come from the Judgment Chambers. Nettle was gazing out the window, her back toward me. As she turned, I fancied I could see a slight swell in her belly. A growing child. A baby for her and Riddle to cherish.

I turned back to Chade. Pillows propped him all around. He was looking at me. The rims of his eyes were pink as if recently cleansed of a crust, and the flesh looked loose on his face. His long-fingered hands rested on the edges of the coverlet, still as I had seldom seen them still. But his gaze met mine and recognized me. “You look terrible,” I greeted him.

“I feel terrible. That bit of scum’s sword did more damage than I thought it had.”

“But you still made an end of him.”

“I did.”

There we stopped. I had not told anyone there how Chade had ended the traitor. Or had I? Oh. I recalled what Dutiful had told me of the Rousters and I wondered what they would make of cut hamstrings, a notched nose, and a slashed throat. Later. Deal with it later.

I wanted to ask if Shun’s stepfather had already paid the price for his treachery. But that, too, was not a question to ask in front of others. I spoke to all of them. “I may have a bit of good news for us. It’s thin soup but better than nothing to feed our hopes upon. The Fool confirms what I’ve suspected. The attack on Withywoods came from Servants of the White Prophet. The Chalcedeans there were most likely mercenaries hired to wield swords, with the Servants directing the attack. The Fool has listened to all the Withywoods folk told us about that terrible evening. He is convinced from the way they dressed Bee in white and bundled her into their sleigh that they believe she is a, uh, a shaysa—that is, a White Prophet candidate. Or something like that. They will value her and will attempt to take her back to their home in Clerres.”

“And Shun?” Chade demanded.

“You heard what the folk of Withywoods said. Bee did her best to protect her. If the Servants value Bee as the Fool believes they do, I hope that means Bee can continue to extend some protection to Shun.”

There was a silence. “So we can hope,” Kettricken offered us quietly.

“Thin soup indeed.” Chade was slowly shaking his head. “You should never have left them alone there, Fitz.”

“I know,” I said simply. Little else I could say to that.

Nettle cleared her throat. “Chade’s messenger has proven his usefulness. I had believed his level of Skill-talent too low for him to belong to a formal coterie, but in this he has functioned well, and we will now train Sildwell as a Solo.”

“You’ve word from Withywoods?”

“Yes. Once the Skill-fog was cleared, Chade’s messenger was able to reach us clearly, as did my journeyman Grand. But little of it is cheery. FitzVigilant is on his way back to Buckkeep, accompanied by the remaining Rousters. I am leaving Grand in place there. They are bringing the bodies of those who attacked you on Gallows Hill. We have led them to believe you and Chade were attacked by unknown assailants, who fled after the Rousters had loyally protected your entry into the stones.”

“That galls me,” Chade said bitterly from his bed.

“But it best protects FitzVigilant and Thick as they journey with the Rousters back to Buckkeep. At least one of the dead men deserves a hero’s funeral, Chade. When they are here in Buckkeep we will sort the sheep from the goats, and we are already digging to see how such treachery could occur within their ranks. The Rousters has always been a ‘final chance’ troop among the guards. Perhaps it is time we disband them altogether.” Dutiful’s voice fell on those last words.

Chade had a slight smile on his face. He pointed a finger at the king and said to me, “He learns. An excellent trait in a king.” He gave a small sigh and added, “When I feel a bit stronger, I will help in that digging. But don’t disband my Rousters. I have a man . . .” His words trickled away. His mouth was slightly ajar as he stared into the flames. I turned my gaze to Nettle. She shook her head at me and lifted a finger to her lips.

Dutiful turned back to me and spoke almost in a whisper. “Thick rides with them, of course. He and Lant will look after each other. And we have Sildwell with them, to keep us informed. Still, it will be good to have both of them safely home again. Lant will stay at court, and this time he will be safe here. As he should have been all along. The sons of Lord Vigilant will not be presented at court for five years.” There seemed some small rebuke for Chade there. Had he never informed Dutiful that Lant’s “stepmother” harbored hatred for him? Well, it meant that the boys had survived. I wondered about the stepmother’s health but did not ask.

Dutiful drew a breath and informed me, “We have had no reports of the raiders after they left Withywoods. It is as if they vanished completely. We think it is that fogging they can do. I’ve asked several of the Skill-journeymen to look through the scrolls for any mention of such a use of it and how it can be detected. But we will continue to search for them and to watch key locations. Grand is in place at Withywoods, with directions that he continue queries and report back daily.”

“How are my people there?”

“Our folk are as well as could be expected,” Nettle replied quietly.

A silence fell in the room. I pondered the full import of those words. Nothing I could do about what had been done.

Chade spoke suddenly. “Ah, Fitz! There you are.”

I turned to Chade and forced a smile to my face. “How are you?” I asked him.

“I am . . . not good.” He looked around at the others as if he wished them gone. No one moved to leave. When he spoke again, I knew he was not telling the full truth. “I feel as if I have been away for a long time. A very long time. Dutiful and Nettle tell me we were less than the full turn of a day in the stones. But I feel as if we were there much longer. Much longer.” His eyes held mine, asking.

“It was almost a full day, Chade. Things can seem very strange in a Skill-passage.” I glanced at Dutiful. He was nodding, his gaze distant. “I think they are more dangerous to use than we know. There is more to them than we understand. When we travel through them, we traverse something much more than distance. We should not use them as if they were simple doors that go from here to there.”

“There, we agree,” Nettle said softly. She glanced at Dutiful, deferring to him.

He cleared his throat. “And how do you feel, Fitz?”

“I think I am almost myself.”

“I fear I have to disagree with you. And Nettle shares that opinion with me. Even now, both of you ring oddly against my Skill-sense, and you have ever since you returned from the stones. We believe your journey changed something in you both. And that perhaps both of you ought to refrain from using the Skill for a time.”

“Perhaps,” Chade agreed. He sighed heavily and then flinched.

I knew I would discuss the Skill-prohibition privately with Chade. I changed the subject. “How bad is your wound?”

“We think the blade sliced into his liver. The bleeding has stopped. The healer says we are wisest to leave well enough alone, that searching the injury may do more damage than simply letting him rest.” Dutiful spoke. Chade rolled his eyes.

“It seems a good plan to me.”

“It is,” Nettle asserted. “And we need another plan as well.” She came away from the window to stand directly in front of Dutiful. She cleared her throat. “My king, invaders have dared to bring Chalcedean mercenaries into the heart of your kingdom. They have attacked my home, killing and injuring my servants. And they have stolen my sister, a child of the Farseer lineage, even if as yet unacknowledged!” Dutiful listened to her gravely. “Such an invasion is not to be tolerated, not by me or by you. The Fool has told us that they will attempt to take them to Clerres. That is a place I have never heard of, but surely it must be on some map, somewhere in Buckkeep. And whether it be north, south, east, or west of us, we can block their path! I beg you, as your subject and your cousin, send out our troops now. If we cannot find them on their road, at least we can put a watch on every kingsway, on every ferry crossing, and in every harbor. Block them, stop them, and bring my sister and Lord Chade’s daughter home safe to us.”

I spoke the little I knew. “Clerres is a city far, far to the south of us. Past Chalced, past the Pirate Isles, past Jamaillia, past the Spice Isles. It requires a journey by ship. The question is, will their mercenaries take them to Chalced first, and set sail from there? Or will they make for the coast and hope to find a southbound ship?”

“Chalced.” Dutiful and Chade spoke together.

“No band of Chalcedean mercenaries would try to take ship from a Six Duchies port. They’d be singled out and questioned immediately, and once it was discovered Bee and Shun were with them against their will, they’d be arrested.” Dutiful was absolutely certain.

I was silent, applying the Fool’s backward logic. So. The Servants would not make for Chalced. Where and how would they go, then?

Dutiful was still expounding. “They’ve a lot of territory to cross. And long before they reach Chalced they’ll have to replace the sleighs with carriages or wagons. Or carts, I suppose. Or all go on horseback . . . How did they come? How is it possible for them to have penetrated so deeply into the Six Duchies, without alerting us at all? Do you think they came from Chalced? Crossing all that territory?”

“Where else would they hire Chalcedean mercenaries?” Chade asked of no one.

Dutiful stood abruptly. “I need to speak with my generals immediately. Nettle, gather your Skilled ones and send out word to every outpost where they are placed. Explain as best you can the ‘fogging’ and ask them to be alert for any strange Skilling—if, indeed, they are using the Skill as we know it. We’ll send messenger birds to the lesser border outposts. Mother, you know our libraries almost as well as our scribes do. Can you direct them to search out any maps or charts we may possess of the far southern lands and look for this city Clerres? No matter the age of the map. The legend of the White Prophet is very old. I doubt the city of its origin has moved. I want to know their most likely routes, ports they may visit, any information you can find.”

“Elliania will help me. She knows our libraries as well as I do.”

The wisp of an idea that had drifted through my mind earlier suddenly manifested. “Web!” I said abruptly.

They all turned to look at me.

“What fogs a man’s mind may leave an animal’s untouched. Let us ask Web to send word to the Old Blood settlements, to ask if any of the partnered beasts have noticed a troop of soldiers and folk riding white horses. Those bonded to birds of prey or carrion birds might be our best hope. Such birds see for a great distance, and carrion birds often mark soldiers. Too well have they learned that soldiers on the move can mean battles, and battles mean dead flesh.”

Kettricken lifted her brows at me. “Clever,” she said softly. “Yes. Web departed a day ago, traveling to Bearns. The crow had visited him and conveyed that she had found a companion. He wished to stay and say farewell to you, but could not. A dragon has been seen regularly over Bearns and perhaps has taken up residence there. Web goes to take counsel with the Duchess and Duke of Bearns about how best to deal with it. The folk of Bearns are not happy to think of donating tribute animals to slake a dragon’s hunger, but it may be their wisest course. It is hoped Web can have words with the dragon and persuade it to take what is offered rather than preying on their best breeding stock.” She sighed. “Such a time we live in. I am reluctant to call him back but I suppose we must. This is too delicate a matter to entrust to anyone else.”

I nodded to Kettricken. Another delay, with Bee and Shine moving farther and farther away. Another idea burst into my mind. “Civil Bresinga. He was here at court, for Winterfest. He sent me a note, offering to be of service to me in any way he could.”

“That he was!” Dutiful smiled and I could see he was pleased that I had remembered his friend. “Civil has many friends among the Old Blood. He can put out the word more swiftly than a messenger can seek out Web.”

“Even for my daughter, I still must wonder: Do we want to spread the news far and wide that we have had unseen invaders in Buck?” Chade spoke from his bed, his voice full of reluctance.

Kettricken spoke into the quiet. “I have come to know Civil well. I’ve never forgotten that as a boy he led Dutiful into danger, even danger of losing his life, but we all recall, too, the threat Civil was under. In the years since then he has proven himself a true friend to my son, and an honorable bearer of the Old Blood. I trust his intelligence. Let me speak to him. I shall tell him to be circumspect in to whom the messages go. And we need tell them only that we are looking for a troop of men on horseback, sleighs, and folk dressed in white furs. But my own tendency is to shout it from the rooftops. The more eyes looking, the better chance that someone will see something.”

“And sometimes people see what they are told they might see. Circumspect is my choice for now.” The king’s word was final. My heart sank a little even as I saw the wisdom of his words.

Dutiful was already at the door. Nettle was on his heels and I sensed a stream of Skill-commands flowing as she moved to her task. Obedient to her request, I did not try to expand my Skill-sense to be aware of what she did. I did not wish to distract her by annoying her. Kettricken was last to the door. She paused and shook her head sadly at Chade. “You should have trusted us more.” Then she closed the door softly behind her, leaving us two assassins alone.

Old habits. Left alone in the room, both of us reverted. Lord Chade and Prince FitzChivalry vanished, and two men who had long done the quiet work for the king’s justice exchanged a glance. Neither of us spoke a word until no echo of footsteps reached us from the corridor. I stepped to the door and listened a moment longer. Then I nodded.

“What else?” Chade demanded of me after a long silence.

I saw no point in mincing my words. “Ash revived the Fool by giving him dragon’s blood.”

“What?” Chade demanded.

I said nothing. He had heard me.

After a time, he made a small noise in the back of his throat. “Ash presumes a bit too much sometimes. Well, what has it done to him?”

I wanted to ask him what he had expected it to do. Instead, I said, “The lad said the Fool was near death. He trickled it into his mouth. It revived him. It more than revived him. He is better by far than when I first brought him here, more recovered than when I left him to race to Withywoods. It seems to be healing him, but it is also changing him. Bones that were broken and then badly healed in his hands and feet appear to be straightening themselves. It’s painful for him, of course, but he can now move all of his fingers, and stand on that crumpled foot. And his eyes have turned gold.”

“As they were before? Can he see now?”

“No, not as they were before. Not a very pale brown. Gold. Like molten metal and as shifting.” It came to me suddenly. I’d seen Tintaglia’s eyes. So had Chade. “Like dragon eyes. And he still cannot see. But he claims to be having peculiar dreams.”

Chade tugged at his chin. “Have Ash speak to him about how he feels, and record everything he says. Tell him he may use pages of the good parchment.”

“I can do that.”

“His dreams, too. Sometimes a man’s dreams tell him things he doesn’t admit to himself. Ash should write down everything the Fool dreams.”

“He may not wish to share what he dreams, but we can ask.”

He gave me a narrowed look. “And what else is biting you?”

“The Fool fears that our enemies may already know our every move.”

“Spies among us? Here in Buckkeep Castle?” He sat up too suddenly, clutched his side, and gasped for a few breaths.

“No. Not spies. He fears they have harvested prophecies gleaned from enslaved White and half-White children.” He listened intently as I explained what the Fool had shared with me.

When I finished, he mused, “Extraordinary. Breeding humans for prophetic powers . . . Such a concept. Study the possible futures and select the chain of events that will most profit your order. It would demand extreme dedication, for you would be acting for the good of those Servants who came long after you, rather than for immediate gain. And they send out into the world the White Prophet they choose, the one who will do their will in shaping the future. Then along comes the Fool, a trueborn prophet, outside their controlled breeding . . . Have you written all this down for me?”

“I haven’t had much time for scribing.”

“Well, make time, if you can.” He folded his lips tightly, thinking. His eyes were very bright. I knew his thoughts were outstripping mine, racing up ladders of logic. “Years ago, when the Fool isolated himself after getting Kettricken home to the Mountain Kingdom, when he thought you were dead and his plans all come to naught, folk came seeking him. Pilgrims. Seeking a White Prophet in the Mountains. How did they know where to find him?”

“I suppose from the prophecies . . .”

He spoke very rapidly. “Or were the so-called Servants seeking him even then? It’s fairly obvious to me that they disliked him being out of their control. Put it together, Fitz. They made the Pale Woman. She was their game-piece. They set her loose on the gaming cloth to shape the world as they wished. They kept him there intending that no one could compete with her, but he got away from them. Rolling and tumbling across their gaming cloth like a bad throw of the dice. They needed him back. What better way to find someone than to seed a search by releasing prophecies and letting others be your pack of hounds seeking him?”

I was silent. Chade’s mind often made those sorts of leaps. He made a small sound, not quite a cough. Was the brightness of his eyes the light of fever? I could hear him breathing through his nose as his mind raced.

He held up another finger. “When they started to arrive, he refused to see any of them. Denied he was a prophet and claimed to be just a toy maker.”

I nodded to that.

“And when you left Jhaampe, you left very quietly.”

“We did.”

“So they might have lost track of him there. He vanishes. He follows his vision of the future and helps you wake the dragons. He ensures that the queen returns to Buck, with a Farseer heir growing in her belly. He vanishes again, to Jamaillia, I suspect, and Bingtown.

“And years later, he reappears as Lord Golden at Buckkeep, just in time to help you assure the survival of the Farseer heir yet again. He is determined to return dragons to this world. He manages to outmaneuver both of us and get himself to Aslevjal Island. And there, at last, the Servants capture him. And they torture him nearly to death. They think they’ve killed him.”

“They did kill him, Chade. He told me they would.” His gaze met mine. He didn’t quite believe me, but I decided it didn’t matter if he did or not. “He went to Aslevjal believing that had to happen for Icefyre to be set free from the glacier and mate with Tintaglia. To bring dragons back to our world.”

“Yes, and how we’ve all enjoyed that!” Chade observed sourly.

For no reason I could explain, that stung. “You’ve enjoyed it enough to obtain dragon’s blood,” I retorted.

He narrowed his eyes slightly. “It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” he observed.

I teetered on a decision. Conversations about morality were rare among assassins. We did as we were told to do. But Chade had undertaken obtaining the blood himself, not as a mission ordained by the king. I dared to question it.

“You don’t feel a bit . . . uncomfortable buying the blood of a creature that obviously thinks and speaks? A creature that was possibly murdered for the harvest of that blood?”

He stared at me. His green eyes narrowed and glittered like glacial ice. “That’s an odd line for you to draw, Fitz. Witted as you are, you ran with a wolf. Did not you bring down deer and rabbits and eat them? Yet those of Old Blood who bond to such creatures would tell you that they think and feel even as we do.”

But they are prey and we are predator. It is how we are meant to be to each other. I shook my mind clear of wolfish thoughts. “That’s true. A man bonded to a buck would agree with you. But it’s how the world is structured. Wolves eat meat. We took only what we needed. My wolf needed meat and we took it. Without it, he would have died.”

“Apparently, without the dragon’s blood, your Fool would have died.” His tone had become acerbic. I wished I had not begun the conversation. Despite all our years together, despite how he had trained me, we had diverged in our thinking. Burrich and Verity, I thought to myself, were perhaps not the best influences for a young assassin. Like a curtain parting to reveal daylight, it came to me that perhaps neither of them had ever truly seen me as a royal assassin. King Shrewd had. But Burrich had done his best to raise me as Chivalry’s son. And perhaps Verity had always seen me as his potential heir.

It did not lessen Chade in my sight. Assassins, I believed, were different from but not inferior to gently raised men. They had their place in the world. Like wolves. But I regretted beginning a conversation that could only show us both how far we had diverged. A silence had fallen between us and it seemed a gulf. I thought of saying, I do not judge you, but it would have been a lie and only made things worse. Instead, I tried to resume an old role and asked him, “I am in awe that you were able to obtain it at all. What did you procure it for? Did you have plans for it?”

He raised his brows. “Several sources imply it’s a powerful restorative. Word came to me that the Duke of Chalced was employing every means at his command to obtain that vial. He believed it would restore him to health and vitality. And for many years, I’d taken a keen interest in the duke’s health.” A very slight but very triumphant smile twitched at his mouth. “That vial of blood was on its way to Chalced when it was . . . diverted. Instead, it came to me.” He waited a moment to allow that thought to penetrate my mind and then added, “The dragon was already dead. Refusing to buy the blood would not have brought it back to life. Diverting it from the Duke of Chalced perhaps saved lives.” The smile flickered over his face again. “Or perhaps not having it ended the duke’s life.”

“I had heard that he died when dragons tumbled his castle onto him. If it’s so, there’s some irony to it, isn’t there? The creatures he was hunting to preserve his life sought him out and killed him.”

“Irony. Or fate. But you’d have to ask your White Prophet about fate.”

He wasn’t serious. Perhaps. I answered as if he were. “After I brought him back from the dead, he lost his ability to see all the futures. He lives day-to-day now, just as we do, fumbling forward down the path to the future.”

Chade shook his head. “There is no path to the future, Fitz. The path is now. Now is all there is, or ever will be. You can change perhaps the next ten breaths in your life. But after that, random chance seizes you in its jaws again. A tree falls on you, a spider bites your ankle, and all your grand plans for winning a battle are for naught. Now is what we have, Fitz, and now is where we act to stay alive.”

The wolfness of the thought jolted me to quiet.

He took a breath, sighed it out fiercely, and gave me a look that was almost a glare. I waited. “There is something else you should know. I doubt it can help us regain our daughters, but you should know, in case it can.” He sounded almost angry at having to share his secret, whatever it was. I waited.

“Shine has the Skill. And strongly.”

“What?” My incredulous reaction pleased him.

He smiled. “Yes. Strange to say, the talent that is so thin in me, I still must fight to use it, blossomed in her at a young age. The Farseer blood runs strong in her veins.”

“How did you discover that?”

“When she was very small, she reached out for me. I had a dream of a little girl tugging at my sleeve. Calling me Papa and begging me to pick her up.” The proud smile grew stronger. “She is strong with it, Fitz. Strong enough to find me.”

“I thought she didn’t know you were her father.”

“She doesn’t. Her mother left her to be raised by her grandparents. Good enough people in their own way. I can recognize that, even if they bled me for money. Obviously they were not fond of me, but they were loyal to their own blood. She was undeniably their granddaughter, and they raised her as such. With the same haphazard raising they had bestowed upon her mother, I am sad to say. Benign but not intelligent. Keeping a child from harm is not the same as rearing one.” He shook his head, his mouth sour. “Her mother disdained her from the beginning, and even as a small child Shine knew that. But she also knew that she had a father, somewhere, and she yearned for him. And in her dreams, she followed that yearning. And our minds touched.”

The uncharacteristically tender smile on his face told me that was his real secret. His daughter had reached out and touched minds with him. And he was proud of her, so proud of her Skill. He regretted not being able to have her near him and shape the innate cleverness he sensed in her. Perhaps if he had had her from her beginnings, she could have inherited his role. Too late for that now, I thought. Those thoughts flashed like lightning through my mind, but my own concerns immediately overwhelmed them.

“Chade, I consider it very likely that you had actually touched her with Skill first. As I did with both Nettle and Dutiful, not even realizing what I was doing. And she then reached back to you. So you can reach her and she can tell us where she is and we can reclaim them! Chade, why didn’t you do that immediately?”

The smile vanished as if it had never been. “You’ll judge me harshly for this,” he warned me. “I sealed her. To everyone but me. While she was still small. Long before I brought her to you, I sealed her against the Skill. To protect her.”

I felt sick with disappointment, but the orderly part of my mind tidied my facts into a neatly dovetailed stack. “Sealed to the Skill. Which was why she alone was still capable of fighting the Servants when everyone else was as passive as cattle awaiting slaughter.”

He bowed his head in a slow nod.

“Can’t you reach out and unseal her? Skill the keyword to her and open her mind?”

“I’ve tried. I can’t.”

“Why not?” Panic, anger at a lost opportunity. My voice cracked on the words.

“My Skill is not strong enough, perhaps.”

“Let me help you then. Or Thick. I’ll wager Thick could batter down any wall.”

He shot a look at me. “Battering. Not the best word to tempt me to try the experiment. But I suppose we shall when Thick gets here. Yet I doubt it will work. I think she has put up her own walls and that they may be stout ones.”

“Did you teach her to do that?

“I didn’t have to. She’s like you. Some things she does by instinct. Do you not recall what Verity said of you? That he could often reach you easily, but the moment you went into any sort of a battle-frenzy, you were lost to him.”

That had been true and was apparently still true. “But she’s not in a battle. They were taken days ago . . .”

“She’s a lovely young woman in the hands of Chalcedean brutes.” His voice grew thick. “I’m a coward, Fitz. I refuse to imagine what her life has been since she was taken. She may very well be in an embattled state of mind at every moment of every day.”

Don’t think about it, I warned myself. The dread was as engulfing as the fog had been at Withywoods. I scrabbled back and away from barbed speculation as to how our daughters might be treated. But they treated Bee as a prize. Surely that will protect her! Such a grimy comfort to offer myself, that my little girl might be safe from all that threatened Chade’s daughter. Burning sickness rose in the back of my throat.

Chade’s voice was low. “Stop feeling and think. Think and plan.” He lifted a hand, grimacing at the pain of the motion, and rubbed his forehead. “Shine was able to resist the magic because she was sealed from the Skill. That may be an armor to use when we go against them.”

“But she was not the only one who resisted. Revel fought back. And Lant.”

Chade’s voice was deep. “Until they didn’t. Recall what Lant said. That he was trying to hold the door and then suddenly the invaders were laughing at him and walking past him. However they netted that magic over Withywoods, it was not in place when they first began their attack. Why? Did they need to be closer to their victims for it to work? That Shine, sealed against all Skill-influence, was the sole person capable of continuing resistance hints to me that if they are not using the Skill itself, their magic is closely related to it.” He paused and pointed a bony finger at me. “So. This tells us what, Fitz?”

I felt as if I were his student again. I tried to find the path his thoughts had already traveled. “Perhaps their Skill-users are not as strong—”

He was already wagging the finger at me. “No. The door-breakers and swordsmen came first. If they had multiple Skill-users, surely they would be the front ranks. Nullifying resistance is better than breaking doors and killing, especially if they were actually looking for this Unexpected Son. Why take a chance that your mercenaries will slaughter the very boy you are seeking? But none of that is what matters here. Think.”

I thought, and then shook my head at him.

He gave a small sigh. “Similar tools often have similar weaknesses. How did we defeat their magic at Withywoods?”

“Elfbark tea. But I cannot see how we can deploy that resistance against them when we do not even know where they are.”

“Right now we do not know where they are. So, despite our desire to dash up and down every highway between here and Chalced with drawn swords, we muster our weapons and ready them as best we can.”

“We prepare packets of elfbark tea?” I tried not to sound sarcastic. Was his mind wandering?

“Yes,” he said sharply, as if he had heard my thought. “Among other supplies. My explosive powders are much improved since the last time you experienced them. When Lady Rosemary returns from . . . her errand, I will have her package some of them for us. I would do it myself, if this wound were not troubling me so.” He touched it again, lightly with his fingertips, wincing.

I did not ask his permission for I was certain I would not get it. I leaned forward and set the back of my hand to his brow. “Fever,” I confirmed. “You should be resting, not plotting with me. Shall I fetch a healer?”

He had been sitting up. Now I understood that it was because he could not lean back due to the pain. He gritted his teeth in a smile. “A prince does not run and fetch the healer. You ring the bell and send a servant. But here we are not princes or lords, but assassins. And fathers. We do not rest while beasts hold our daughters captive. So help me lean back. And bring no healers here, but go and find for me the remedies you think best. They will want me to sleep, when I well know that the fires of a fever can make my thoughts burn brighter.”

“I will. But then you will tell me Shine’s keyword and together we will try to reach her.” On that I was determined. This was a secret he could not be allowed to keep.

He folded his lips. I stood firm. It was only when he nodded that I set my arm around his shoulders and supported him as he lay back on the bed. Even so he gasped and set his hand to his wound. “Oh, the blood flows again,” he complained. Then he was quiet, his lips puffing in and out as he breathed against the pain.

“I think a healer should look at you. Poisons I know, and the sort of medicines that have kept me alive when no one else was near to help me. But I am no healer.”

I saw him almost give way. Then he bartered, “Bring me something for the pain. Then we will try to reach Shine. And after that, you may summon a healer.”

“Agreed!” I said, and hastened out the door before he could tie any strings to our bargain.

Back to my room I went, locking the door behind me and opening the secret stair. A tap, tap, tap startled me. I pushed back the curtain to find the crow clinging to the stone sill of my window. The moment I opened it, she was in. She hopped to the floor of my room, looked around, then spread her wings and flew up the stairs. Up I went, two steps at a time.

There a curious sight met my eyes. The Fool was at table with a young girl of about fourteen. Her hair was gathered back and pinned neatly under a ruffled cap. Humble as it was, it still boasted three buttons. Her neat servant’s tunic of Buckkeep blue covered her modest bust. She was watching intently as the Fool moved a small, sharp knife against a piece of wood.

“. . . more difficult without my sight, but it was always my fingers that read the wood for me when I was carving. I’m afraid that I’d grown more dependent on my fingertips than I realized. I can still feel the wood, but it’s not the same as when . . .”

“Who are you, and who let you into this chamber?” I demanded. I moved immediately to put myself between the Fool and the girl. She looked up at me with a woebegone expression. Then Ash spoke from her lips.

“I’ve been careless. Lord Chade will not be pleased with me.”

“What is it? What has alarmed you so?” The Fool was breathless with anxiety, his golden eyes wide. The carving tool in his hand he now gripped as a weapon.

“It’s nothing. Just more of Chade’s mummery! I’ve walked in on Ash dressed as a serving girl. I didn’t recognize him at first, and it gave me a turn. It’s all right, Fool. You are safe.”

“What?” he asked in a flustered voice, and then managed a nervous laugh. “Oh. If that’s all, then . . .” But when he set the tool to the wood, his hand trembled. Wordlessly, he set it down. Then, swift as a snake striking, his hand shot across the table to grip Ash’s arm. The boy cried out but the Fool held fast as he seized his other wrist as well. “Why would you disguise yourself so? Who pays you?” Then, as his hand traveled farther down the boy’s arm to his wrist and then hand, he sat back suddenly in his chair. He did not release Ash’s arm but said in a shaking voice, “Not Ash in a serving girl’s dress, but a serving girl who has masqueraded as Chade’s young apprentice. What goes on here, Fitz? How could we have been so stupid as to have trusted so quickly!”

“Your trust was not misplaced, sir. Possibly I would have shared my secret sooner if Lord Chade had not forbidden it.” In a lower voice she added, “You are hurting me. Please loosen your grip.”

The flesh of the girl’s forearm stood up in white ridges between the Fool’s fingers. I spoke. “Fool. I have her. You can let her go.”

He did, but reluctantly, a slow opening of his hands. He sat back on his chair. His golden eyes whirled and gleamed angrily in the low light. “And what have I done to deserve this deception from Lord Chade?”

She looked at me as she spoke, rubbing her arm. Her cheeks were very pink and now that the Fool had announced her as a girl, I wondered how I could have seen her as anything else, even in her lad’s guise. When she spoke, her voice was a notch higher. “Sirs, I beg you. There was no wish to deceive you, but only to remain as you had first seen me. As the boy, Ash. So I was when Lord Chade first met me, though he saw through my guise in less than an evening. He said it was in my throat and in the fineness of my hands. He has given me much scrubbing of floors to roughen them, which helps, but he says the bones give me away. Is that how you knew, Lord Golden? By the bones of my hands?”

“Don’t call me by that name. Don’t speak to me at all!” the Fool declared childishly. I wondered if he would have regretted his words if he had seen how they devastated her. I cleared my throat, and she turned her stricken gaze to me.

“Do speak to me, and give me the tale from the beginning. From the time you first met Lord Chade.”

She composed herself, folding her betraying hands on the table before her. I had forgotten the crow, and when Motley hopped closer, I startled. The crow bobbed and touched his beak to her hand, as if to reassure her. Ash-girl almost smiled. But when she spoke, I could hear how rattled she still was. “My tale goes back quite a bit before I met Lord Chade, sir. You know that my mother was prostituted. That is where my tale of deception begins. I was born a girl, but my mother made me a boy within minutes of my birth. She birthed me alone, biting a folded handkerchief to keep her cries from betraying her. When I was discovered, I was already swaddled, and she declared to the mistress of the establishment that she had borne a son. So I grew up in that house of women, believing myself a boy. My mother was fastidious in her insistence that only she might care for me, and enforcing on me privacy for any moment when my body might be bared. I had no playmates, left the house only in my mother’s company, and was severely schooled that when I was not with my mother, I must remain in her small and private dressing chamber and keep myself quiet. This I learned so long ago that I do not even remember how it was taught to me.

“I was nearly seven when she revealed the truth to me. Having never seen anyone naked but a woman, I knew nothing of how a man’s parts differed. I had believed myself a boy, all that time. I was shocked and distressed. And afraid. For in our house, there were girls not much older than me who toiled at my mother’s trade sadly, though they must always pretend to be merry and giddy. That, my mother told me, was why she had made me a boy and why I must remain a boy. My true name, she told me, is Spark. Ash is what covers a coal and hides its light, and so she made my names.”

Despite himself, the Fool was rapt in her tale, his mouth slightly ajar in either wonder or horror. I felt a deep sadness for her.

“How is it that women work that trade as if they were slaves? Slavery is not permitted in the Six Duchies.”

She shook her head at my ignorance. “No. But when you incur a debt you cannot pay, often the judgment is that you must labor to pay it off. When my mother was young and new to Buckkeep Town, she learned to love the gaming tables. She was pretty and clever, but not clever enough to see that the owner of the gaming establishment gave her credits too easily. And when she was deeply enmeshed, he closed his trap.” She cocked her head at me. “She is not, by far, the first woman or man to be so coerced. It is well known that there is a judge, Lord Sensible, who presides over many debtors’ judgments, and often sends comely men and women into the flesh trade. Discreet houses, such as the one where my mother worked, pay off the gambling debts and claim the new debt. If anyone complains, the owners threaten to sell the debt to the ones who put debtors on the docks and streets, to service their trade in the alleys. But once my mother was in the house, she was charged for the food she ate and her clothing and her bed and clean bedding. The whores can never emerge from their debts. When I was born and my mother kept me, I became an additional expense for her.”

“Lord Sensible.” I committed the name to my memory and vowed coldly that Dutiful would hear it from my lips. How had I lived so long in Buck and never known of such a thing?

Spark resumed her tale. “The women of the house began to use me as their little errand boy. I was allowed out and about, to run notes to their gentlemen or bring special items from the markets. Our lives went on. I met Lord Chade one evening when he asked for a lad to take a message from him to a ship at the river docks. I took it from him and did as he bade. When I returned, I gave him the written reply. I had turned to leave when he called me back, holding up a silver penny. But when I went to take it from him, he seized my hand, even as you did, and then in a whisper asked what my game was. I told him I had no game, that I was my mother’s errand boy and if he had questions, he should ask them of her. And that night he sought her out instead of his favorite, and spent the whole evening with her. He was very impressed with how well she had taught me. And after that, whenever he came for his visit, he always made excuse to see me, to send me on an errand and always to pay me a silver penny. He began to teach me more things. To push my chin out to have more of a jaw, and to roughen my hand with cold water, and to pad out my shoes to make my feet look bigger.

“My mother was very good at her trade, but it was not what she had wanted for herself, and still less for me. Lord Chade promised that when I turned fifteen he would take me as his servant and teach me a different trade.” She paused, sighing. “Fate intervened. He took me when I was eleven.”

“Wait. How old are you?”

“As a girl? Thirteen. When I am Ash, I tell people I am eleven. I’m a rather spindly boy, even though I’m strong for a girl.”

“What happened when you were eleven?” the Fool demanded.

Spark’s face lost all expression. Her eyes were unreadable. But she kept her voice steady. “A gentleman thought it would amuse him to share a bed with a mother and her son. He had already paid the lady of our house a substantial sum for such a night when he came to our quarters. No one asked our permission. When my mother objected, the owner of the house said that the debt to her was mine as well as my mother’s. And that if my mother and I did not comply, she would turn me out of the house that very minute.” Her face went paler, her nostrils pinched with distaste. “The gentleman came to our rooms. He told me that first I would watch as he did his business with my mother. And then she would watch as he taught me ‘a new little amusement.’ I refused and he laughed. ‘You’ve raised him to have spirit. I’ve always wanted a spirited little mount.’

“My mother said, ‘You will not have him, now or ever.’ I thought he would be angry but it only seemed to make him excited. My mother was wearing a pretty wrap, as the women of the house often did. He seized the neck of it, tore it open, and pushed my mother down on the bed, but instead of fighting back, she wrapped her arms and legs about him and told me to run away, to leave the house and never come back.” She paused, her mind going back. Her upper lip twitched up twice: If she had been a cat, she would have spat out a hiss.

“Spark?” the Fool prompted her quietly.

Her voice was flat. “I ran. I obeyed her as I always had and I ran. I hid. For two days, I lived on the streets of Dingyton. I did not do very well at it. One day a man caught me. I thought he was going to kill me or rape me, but he told me Lord Chade wished to see me. It was a different name, of course, from the name I knew him by when he patronized my mother’s house. But he had a token I recognized, so even though I feared a trap, I went with him. Two days of hunger and cold had made me wonder if I had been a fool to refuse my mother’s gentleman.” She sighed out a breath. “The man took me to an inn, gave me a meal, and locked me in a room. I waited for hours, fearing what would happen next. The Lord Chade came. He said that my mother had been murdered and he had feared for me . . .”

That was the point at which life and pain came back into her voice. She gasped her way through the rest of her tale. “I thought I had left her to face a beating. Or to having the lady of the house dock her earnings. Not to be raped and strangled and left like a dirtied handkerchief on the floor of her chamber.”

Her words stopped and for a time she breathed like a bellows. Neither the Fool nor I spoke. Finally she said, “Lord Chade asked me who had done it. The lady of the house had refused to say who had bought my mother’s time that evening. I did not know his name but I knew everything else about him. I knew the name of the scent he wore and the pattern of the lace on his cuffs, and that he had a birthmark below his left ear. I do not think I will ever be able to forget exactly how he looked as my mother clutched him to herself so that I could escape.”

Her words dwindled away and a long silence followed. She hiccuped, a strangely normal sound at the end of such a dark tale. “So I came here. To work for Lord Chade. I came here as a boy and I live here mostly as a boy, but sometimes he bids me dress as a maidservant. To learn how to be a girl, I suppose. Because as I become a woman, I suspect that it will not be as easy for me to wear my boy’s disguise. But also to hear the sort of thing that folk do not say in front of a serving lad. To witness the sorts of things a lord or a lady does in front of a simple maidservant that they would not do before anyone else. And to bring such observations back to Chade.”

Chade. And with that speaking of his name, my errand flew back into my mind. “Chade! He has a wound fever, and that was why I came here. To fetch something for his pain. And to send for a healer to come to him later to cleanse the wound again.”

Spark leapt to her feet. The concern on her face was not feigned. “I’ll fetch a healer for him now. I know the old man he prefers. He is not swift, but he is good. He talks to Lord Chade and offers him this or that treatment, and listens to what Lord Chade thinks would be best. I’ll go for him now, though he will be slow to rouse, and then I’ll come immediately to Lord Chade’s room.”

“Go,” I agreed, and she hurried to the tapestry door and vanished from the den. For a short time we sat in silence.

Then, “Poppy,” I said, and rose to go to the shelves. Chade had it stored in several forms. I chose a potent tincture that I could dilute with a tea.

“She was a very convincing boy,” the Fool observed. I could not identify the emotion in his voice.

I was looking for a smaller container to carry some of the tincture in. “Well, you would know better about that than I would,” I said without thinking.

He laughed. “Ah, Fitz, I would indeed.”

He drummed his fingertips on the tabletop. I turned in surprise to watch that. “Your hands seem much better.”

“They are. But they are still painful. Any poppy for me?”

“We need to be careful with how much pain medicine we give you.”

“So. No is what you are saying. Ah, well.” I watched him try to steeple his fingers. They were still too stiff. “I want to apologize. No. Not apologize exactly but . . . I get those surges of terror. Panic. And I become someone else. Someone I don’t want to be. I wanted to hurt Ash. That was my first impulse. To hurt him for frightening me.”

“I know that impulse.”

“And?”

I had given up my search. I’d have to take the little bottle to Chade’s room and then bring it back. “Ash is the one you should apologize to. Or Spark. And for that rush of fury? Time. Time passing with no one trying to hurt you or kill you will lessen that reaction. But in my experience, it never goes away completely. I still have dreams. I still feel flashes of rage.” The face of the man who had stabbed the dog in the market came to my mind. Anger surged in me again. I should have hurt him more, I thought. Stop, I told myself. Stop remembering that.

The Fool’s fingers pattered lightly on the wood he had been carving. “Ash, Spark. She’s good company, Fitz. I like him. I suspect I’ll like her as well. Chade is often wiser than I give him credit for. Allowing her to dress and live in both her roles is brilliant of him.”

I was silent. I had just recalled how casually I had stripped to the skin before Ash. A girl. A girl not that many years older than my own daughter, handing me fresh smallclothes. I do not think I had blushed so hotly in years. I would not mention that to the Fool. He’d had enough merriment at my expense lately.

“I should hurry this down to Chade. Fool, is there anything you need or want before I go?”

He smiled bitterly. He held up a hand and began to tick off items on his fingers. “My sight. My strength. Some courage.” He stopped. “No, Fitz, nothing you can give me now. I regret how I reacted to Ash being Spark. I feel oddly ashamed. Perhaps because, as you mentioned, I have played both those roles. Perhaps I understand a bit more of what you felt the first time you knew of Amber. I hope he will forgive me and come back.” He took up his wood and felt about for his carving tool. The crow hopped closer and cocked her head to see what he was doing. Somehow he sensed her. He extended his finger toward her and she hopped closer to have her head stroked. “My time here would have been far lonelier without Ash. And Motley. Much harder to bear. And she was the one to give me the dragon’s blood that has done so much for me. I hope I haven’t driven her away.”

“Perhaps I can come back and share a meal with you this evening.”

“The duties of Prince FitzChivalry Farseer will most likely prevent that. But some good brandy, late tonight, would be very welcome.”

“Late tonight, then.” I left them there and threaded my way back to Chade’s bedchamber, arriving as two young men were leaving. They halted where they were and regarded me with wide eyes. Prosper and Integrity. Dutiful’s sons. I had held them when they were babies, and as small boys they had sometimes visited Withywoods with their father. I had rolled them about in autumn leaves, and watched them chase frogs in a stream. And then, as they began to get older, their times on the Out Islands had taken them out of my world.

Prosper elbowed his brother and said smugly, “I told you that was him.”

King-in-Waiting Integrity had a bit more dignity. “Cousin,” he said gravely and held out a hand.

We clasped wrists while Prosper rolled his eyes. “I seem to recall him rinsing you off in the horse trough after you fell in the manure,” he observed to no one in particular.

Integrity strove to maintain his dignity as I lied carefully, “I don’t remember that at all.”

“I do,” Prosper asserted. “Grandma Patience scolded you for fouling the horses’ water.”

That brought a smile to my lips. I had forgotten that they had considered Patience a grandmother. Abruptly I wanted those days back. I wanted my little girl home, and I wanted that childhood for her. Not burning bodies in the night, nor being kidnapped by Chalcedean mercenaries. I pushed it all down and found my voice. “How is Lord Chade?”

“Our grandmother asked us to visit him and keep his mind busy. He just told us his mind was busy enough and asked us to take ourselves elsewhere. I think his wound is bothering him more than he wants anyone to know. But we are doing as he bade and taking ourselves elsewhere. Would you like to come with us? Lord Cheery is hosting cards today.”

“I—no, thank you. I think I’ll take my watch at keeping Lord Chade’s mind busy.” Cards. I knew a vague disapproval, then wondered what I thought they should be occupying themselves with. They stood a moment longer, looking at me, and I suddenly realized that we had next to nothing to say to one another. I had stepped back from their lives and now I scarcely knew them.

Integrity recovered before I did. “Well. We shall certainly see you at dinner tonight. Perhaps we can talk more then.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I doubted it. I did not want to tell them grandfatherly tales of how things had been. People I’d killed, how their great-uncle had tortured me. I felt suddenly old, and hastily entered Chade’s chambers to remind myself that he was much older than I was.

“Fitz,” he greeted me. “You were gone so long.”

I shut the door behind me. “How bad is the pain?” I took the vial out of my pocket as I spoke. His mouth was pinched white and I could smell the distress in his sweat.

“It’s bad.” He was breathing through his open mouth.

“Ash has gone for the healer. Or rather, I should say Spark has.”

His brief smile was a grimace. “Ah. Well, better that you know. Did you bring the poppy?”

“Yes. But perhaps we should wait for the healer?”

He gave his head a quick shake. “No. I need it, boy. I can’t think. And I can’t keep them out.”

“Keep who out?” I looked around his room hastily. Nothing here to mix with the poppy to make it go down more easily.

“You know,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “The ones from the stones.”

That froze me where I stood. In two strides I was beside his bed. I touched his brow. Hot and dry. “Chade, I don’t know what you mean. You have a fever. I think you might be hallucinating.”

He stared at me. His eyes were glittery green. “No one spoke to you during our passage? No one tries to speak to you now?” They weren’t questions. They were accusations.

“No, Chade.” I feared for him.

He chewed on his lower lip. “I recognized his voice. All these years gone, but I knew my brother’s voice.”

I waited.

His fingers beckoned me closer. He flicked them toward the portrait on the wall. He whispered, “Shrewd spoke to me, in the stones. He asked if I were coming to join him now.”

“Chade, your wound has gone foul and your fever has gone up. Your mind is wandering.” Why did I bother speaking the words? I knew he would not accept them. Just as I knew with plummeting despair that he could not Skill with me just now.

“You could come with us, Fitz. Whisper away with us. You’d find it a kinder awareness.” He spoke in a tone so like old King Shrewd’s that a chill ran down my spine. It was too late. If I helped him reach out with the Skill right now, would he open Shine? Or willfully tatter us both away to nothing?

“Chade. Please.” I did not even know what I was asking him for. I took a breath. “Let me look at that wound.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s not the wound, Fitz. It’s not the infection. At least, not that one. It’s the Skill. That’s what festers in me now.” He paused. He stared at the wall, taking long, slow breaths. I could not resist the impulse. I turned to look at the portrait. Nothing there. Only paint on canvas. Then he asked me, “Do you remember August Farseer?”

“Of course I do.” He’d been nephew to King Shrewd, and nephew to Chade, too, I supposed. Son of their younger sister, who had died giving birth to him. Not much older than me when we had both been sent off to the Mountain Kingdom. He was supposed to be the intermediary for Verity to speak his vows to the Mountain princess Kettricken. But even at that early stage, Regal’s treachery had been at work. Verity had not meant to burn out August’s mind when he had Skilled through him to assure Kettricken that he was an honorable man, and had had nothing to do with her brother’s assassination. But he had. After that, August had come and gone like a flame dancing above a guttering wick. Some days he had seemed sensible. On others his mind had wandered like an old man succumbing to dotage. The Farseer throne had quietly moved him away from the court. I recalled now that he had died at Withywoods in the early days of the Red-Ship War. By then his passing had scarcely been noticed, for his mind had long since departed.

“So do I. Fitz, I should have listened to you. Maybe Shrewd was right when he said no. All those years ago. Envy cut me like a knife when he said you might have the Skill-training. They’d denied it to me, you know. And I’d wanted it so. So much.” He gave me a sickly smile. “And then . . . I got what I wanted. Or perhaps it got me.”

There was a brisk tap at the door. The healer. I felt a burst of relief that ebbed as rapidly as it had risen when Nettle swept into the room. I felt her Skill come with her as if it were a strong perfume. It flavored the air in the room, and I could not step back from it. She looked at me in dismay. “Not you, too,” she begged. She drew a sharp breath. “I could feel him spilling out into the Skill. I’ve summoned the others. I didn’t expect to find you here, spilling with him.”

I stared at her. “No. I’m fine. But Chade has a high fever. I think his wound has become toxic. He’s hallucinating.” I spoke quickly.

She looked at me pityingly. “No,” she said quietly. “It’s worse than that. And I think you know that. It’s the Skill. Once, you told me that it was like a great river, and that if a Skill-user wasn’t careful, she could be swept away in it. You warned me of the danger of that pull.” She met my eyes and lifted her chin. “Not that long ago, I caught you at it. Tempting yourself with it. Letting yourself unravel into that flow of threads.”

It was true. Allowing oneself to flow into the Skill-current was intoxicating. The sense of merging and belonging beckoned as pain and worries flowed away. It felt powerful and right. I’d been tempted, and more than once. I would have felt ashamed if I had not been so frightened. And so desperate. “We have to pull him back,” I told her. I teetered on the edge of telling her why it was so important. Then feared that even if she knew, she would not let us try.

“No. Not we. You have to stay well back from this, Da. Because I’ve sensed it in you since you came back from Withywoods. The current tugs at you both.” She took in a breath, her hand set on the barely visible rise of her belly. “Oh, that Thick were here now. But even if the weather holds fine, he is still two days away.” She put her attention back on me. “It would probably be best if you left. And set your walls as tightly as you can.”

I couldn’t go. Chade had clutched the blankets to his throat and was watching her as if he were a small boy and she had a switch behind her back. “I brought him poppy. For the pain. If we dull the pain, he might have more control.”

She shook her head. “He can’t have it. We think that right now, the pain is what is keeping him here, in his body. It’s reminding him he has a body.”

“He seemed fine when we spoke earlier. Well, in pain from his wound, but he made sense. We took counsel together . . .”

She was shaking her head at me. There was another tap at the door and Steady entered. He nodded to me and actually smiled. “Fitz! I’m glad that at last you can be yourself here at Buckkeep Castle.”

“Thank you,” I said inanely. My gaze was on Chade. He was staring up at the portrait of his brother, his mouth moving soundlessly as if he spoke to him. But Steady’s full attention was on his sister as he asked Nettle, “Should you be trying this? Shouldn’t you be resting?”

She smiled at him wearily. “Steady, I’m pregnant, not ill. Where are the others?”

He tipped his head toward me as if we were sharing a joke. “When she snaps her fingers, she expects the king to come at a trot. He’ll be here soon, Nettle.”

“It will be only the three of you? That’s not much of a Skill-coterie. You’ll need me here.” I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt. I reached my hand toward Chade, thinking that if we touched, I could reach him. Nettle sharply slapped it aside.

“No. We have two Solos we can summon if we think that we need their help. Amethyst and Hardy are not very sociable but both are strong in the Skill. For now, I think those most familiar with Lord Chade can best call him back and bind him up. But not you.” Nettle answered my question and then pointed at the door. I opened my mouth to object and she told me, “You can’t help us. You will only distract us, and that includes distracting Chade. And you may make yourself more vulnerable than you already are. Chade is hemorrhaging into the Skill-stream. And he’s actively trying to draw you with him, whether you realize it or not.”

“I have to stay. You have to bring him back to his senses. Then, wise or not, he and I must attempt to Skill together.”

Nettle narrowed her eyes at me. “No. The very fact that you are asking this shows me that you are strongly drawn to it.”

I met her gaze. Oh, Molly, would that you could look at me with that same stubborn look your daughter wears. I steeled my heart. Loyalty to the Farseer reign Chade had always taught me. Above all things, even loyalty to Chade. Right now, my judgment was clearer than his. “That’s not it at all. It’s not the Skill-yearning. It’s Bee. A short time ago, when we were talking, Chade revealed to me that his daughter Shun—Shine—has the Skill. She is untrained. And worse, he sealed her to the Skill lest she be vulnerable.” The anger on Nettle’s face was building to fury. More frightening was Chade’s lack of reaction to my betrayal. He was watching the wall again, his mouth hanging ajar. “He has been unable to reach her, to Skill the unlocking word to her so she can help us find her. He did not know if it was because he was weak or because the danger all around her has made her put up her Skill-walls. Together, we were going to try to break through to her.”

“After I’d told both of you to refrain from Skilling?”

“I’d forgotten that,” I said honestly.

“You expect me to believe that?” She bit off the words one by one.

“It’s true! The chance to find Bee was all I thought of.”

Her look softened slightly. No, I had imagined that, for her next words were, “And knowing that, you did not think to immediately come to me, the Skillmistress, to seek my advice and expertise in this matter?” She folded her lips tightly, then, as if against her will, asked me, “Do you have any respect for me at all?”

“Of course I do!”

“You love me as your daughter. I don’t doubt that. But respecting my knowledge and ability, I doubt that—” She stopped herself suddenly. She was still for a moment and then asked me calmly, “What was the word to open Shine?”

“He didn’t tell me.”

She nodded gravely. “Perfect.” She pointed to the door. “Now go. I have work to do here.”

“I can help. He trusts me. I know the shape of him, I can find him and bring him back.”

“No. You can’t. Even now, you are spilling and you don’t even know it. You are tangled with him somehow. And he is holding on to you, trying to pull you with him.”

I opened myself, trying to feel if what she said was true. Was there a tugging? Pulling me in or . . .?

“Stop that!” Nettle hissed at me, and I snapped my walls back into place.

“Pull me back,” Chade said quietly. Every hair on my body stood erect.

“Verity?” I whispered. I took an inadvertent step toward him, looking into his green eyes, seeking the dark-brown gaze of the king I had served. My mind darted back to a Skill-dream, of my weary king crouched by a river of pure and shining magic, plunging his hands and arms into the silvery burning flow. And then begging me to help him, to pull him back from the draw of that liquid magic.

“Stay back, boy!” he cautioned me as my daughter stepped between Chade and me. She put both her hands on my chest.

“Da. Look at me!” she commanded, and when my gaze met hers, she promised, “If I must, I will call the guard and have you removed from this room. If I must, I will force elfbark tea down your throat until you cannot muster even a thread of Skill. I will not lose you. I need you and my sister needs you.”

“Bee,” I said quietly, and as a wave retreats from the beach, all desire for the Skill ebbed from me. I looked at Chade’s glittering eyes and felt ill.

“Save him,” I begged her. “Please. Save him.”

Then I turned on my heel and left them there.


Chapter Eighteen The Changer | Fool's Quest | Chapter Twenty Marking Time