The princess may confront, or the king may make demands. The queen or prince may even threaten or issue ultimatums. The diplomat or emissary will mediate, cooperate, or negotiate. But the royal assassin, the one who wreaks the king’s justice, has none of those tools at his disposal. She is the ruler’s weapon, deployed as the Farseer king or queen sees fit. When the assassin is called into play by the one who rules her, her own will shall be suspended. She is both as powerful and as powerless as a game-piece deployed upon the gaming cloth. She goes and she acts and then she is done with it. She makes no judgment and takes no vengeance.
Only in that way can she maintain his virtue and his innocence of true crime. She never kills of her own volition. What is done by the royal assassin’s hand is not murder but execution. The sword never bears any guilt.
“I did not know how to stop them.” FitzVigilant stood very straight before an odd court of judgment. We had convened in Verity’s tower, where once my king had defended the Six Duchies coast from Red Ships, and where later Chade and Dutiful and I had done our best to master the Skill-magic with the limited information we had. How it had changed over the years! When first Verity had used it as a lookout over the water to help him focus his search for the Red Ships attacking us, it had been dusty and disused, a refuge for retired bits of furniture. The dark circular table in the center of the room now was warmly polished, and the chairs that surrounded it had high backs with carvings of bucks on them. I pitied whichever servants had carried the heavy furniture up all those spiraling stairs. Lant stood, and seated at the table were the king and queen, Lady Kettricken, Nettle, and myself.
Lady Rosemary and Ash were also there, dressed entirely in blue so dark it was almost black. They stood, motionless and silent, their backs to the wall. Waiting. Like sheathed blades.
Dutiful sighed. “I had hoped for better from them. I had hoped that when the conspirators were cut out of their ranks, something worthy of duty might remain among the Rousters. But it appears not.” He had been looking at his hands. Now he looked at Lant. “Did any of them threaten you in any way? Or give any sign that they had been aware of the plot to kill Lord Chade?”
Lant stood straighter. “When I rode with them, I was only partially aware of what had happened to Lord Chade and Prince FitzChivalry. If I had been better informed, I might have taken a different tack. And been more watchful and wary of all they did and said.”
“That’s valid,” King Dutiful concurred, and once again I thought it almost seemed as if Lant were on trial here rather than giving testimony that would decide the fate of the Rousters. Thick had been entrusted to a healer. He had already given a long and wandering account of his ill treatment at the hands of the men who were supposed to protect him. Then he had wanted his own bed. The steams had warmed him through but he was still coughing when he left us. Perseverance, very pale and nervous at being called to speak before such an august board, had corroborated all that Thick had recounted.
Queen Elliania spoke. She did not raise her voice but her clear words carried. “Sir, did you at any time outright forbid their ill behavior? Did you remind them that Thick was entrusted to their care?”
Lant paused to think, and my heart sank for him. He hadn’t. “I remonstrated with them. I pointed out that they should behave as befitted a guard company, especially when in a public place such as a tavern. It did little good. Shorn of their officers, they seemed to have no self-discipline.”
Dutiful’s brow furrowed. “But you never ordered them directly to cease their ill treatment of Thick?”
“I . . . did not.” He cleared his throat. “I was not sure I had that authority, sire.”
“If not you, then who?” the king said heavily. Lant did not reply. Dutiful sighed again. “You may go.”
Lant went, walking stiffly. Before he reached the door, I spoke. “If I may offer some words, my king?”
“I would point out that FitzVigilant arrived at Withywoods in poor condition owing to a severe beating he had taken in Buckkeep Town. And that he had been battered again, in both mind and body, when Withywoods was attacked.”
“His behavior is not being judged here, Prince FitzChivalry,” the king said, but as Lant reached the door, he shot me a look that was both ashamed and grateful. The guard on the door allowed him out. At a gesture from Dutiful, the guard followed Lant out the door and shut it behind him.
“Well. What shall we do with them?”
“Disband them. Flog those who mistreated Thick. Send them away in shame from Buck forever.” Elliania spoke dispassionately, and I had no doubt that in the Out Islands such would have been their fate.
“Not every man of them mistreated Thick. Find the ones who should bear the blame, and judge them individually.” Kettricken spoke quietly.
“But those who did not directly injure him did not oppose those who did!” Elliania objected.
The king shook his head. “There was no clear chain of command. Part of the fault must be borne by me. I should have directed FitzVigilant to take command of them and conveyed that to all.”
I spoke. “I doubt they would have accepted his authority. He has never soldiered. These men are the barrel-scrapings of the guard. Discarded by other guard units, they are the ones with the least self-discipline, ruled by the most ruthless and least honorable officers. At the least, disband them. Some will perhaps find places with other guard units. But keeping them as a company will only invite the worst from them.” I spoke for mercy in a calm voice. But privately, I planned to work a bit of the prince’s justice on the ones Thick had named to me.
Dutiful looked at me as if he could hear my thoughts. I hastily checked my walls. No, I was alone in my mind. He had simply come to know me too well. “Perhaps you would like to speak with each of them and see if any meet the standard to be included in your new guard company?”
“And then he smiled at me.” The irritation I felt with my king was not ameliorated by the smile that bloomed on the Fool’s face.
“He does know you well, to set you to this task. I’ll wager that in that barrel of rotten apples, you’ll find a few sound ones. And that when you give them a final chance, you’ll win their loyalty forever.”
“Not the sort of men I’d want at my back,” I objected. “Nor the sort of troops I want to hand to Foxglove and expect her to manage. I’d like my honor guard to actually be honorable men.”
“What of the ones who taunted Thick and backhanded your stable lad?”
I took breath to speak and then gasped in surprise as an arrow of Skill from Nettle penetrated my walls effortlessly. The Queen’s Garden. Tidings of Bee and Shine. Come now. Do not try to Skill back to me.
Hope flared in my heart. “I am summoned by Nettle to the Queen’s Garden,” I told him and stood. “They may have word of Bee’s whereabouts.” I was shocked to find that the sudden hope cut me as sharply as fear.
“Light! Air!” the crow demanded as I stood.
“I’ll return as soon as I can,” I offered. I ignored the Fool’s disappointed look, and did not even object as Motley hopped from the table and with a single flap of her wings gained my shoulder. In my chamber, I paused only to release the crow from my window before I hastened to find Nettle in the Queen’s Garden.
The Queen’s Garden was no traditional garden, but a tower top. I was panting when I reached it, having run through half of Buckkeep Castle to get there. In summer the pots there overflowed with greenery and fragrant blossoms. Some even held small fruit trees. Simple statuary and isolated benches completed Kettricken’s retreat from the petty annoyances of life at court. But as I emerged onto the tower top, winter greeted me. Snow mounded the planters, and the small trees had been swaddled against winter’s cruelest bite. I had thought to find only Nettle waiting for me. But Kettricken, warmly cloaked against winter’s chill, was present, as well as Dutiful, and Queen Elliania. It took me a moment to recognize Civil Bresinga. The boy had grown to a man. When he saw I recognized him, he bowed to me gravely but kept silent. I had wondered why they had chosen the Queen’s Garden as a meeting place. As Dutiful’s hound rolled a young lynx around in the snow, I understood. The two Wit-companions, obviously well acquainted with each other, suddenly raced off between the planters. I knew a moment of sharp envy.
“We’ve had word,” Dutiful greeted me.
He seemed so solemn that I wondered if bodies had been found. I left formality behind as I demanded of him, “What news?”
“It’s not certain,” Dutiful cautioned me, but Civil did not wait to speak.
“As my king requested, I sent out discreet queries, particularly to those of Old Blood who are bonded to birds of prey. I am sure you understand that even Witted partners pay small attention to things that don’t concern them. But two reports came back to me.
“Yesterday a messenger pigeon brought me a message from Carter Wick, an Old Blood bonded to a raven. The raven had found a company of folk camped in the forest. When she tried to pick over the bones of some rabbits they’d eaten, they threw sticks at her. She said that there were white horses there.”
He held up a cautioning finger. “Today, Rampion, a youngster whose Wit-bird is a merlin, sent word to us. The merlin complained of people ruining her hunting by stopping for the day in a clearing where she can usually take mice. The white horses had trampled the snow, giving the mice much better hiding places when they emerged from their burrows to seek seedheads still sticking up out of the snow.”
“Where?” I demanded again, my temper rising to match my urgency. Finally, finally, I could take some action. Why were all of them just standing about?
“Fitz!” Dutiful spoke sharply, as my king rather than my cousin. “Calm yourself. Wait until you have heard all. The Wit-beasts have given us two possible sightings, a day apart. Both were in Buck. One on this side of Chancy Bridge, and the other approaching the Yellow Hills. It puzzled me greatly, for they were moving slowly.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from demanding why I had not heard those reports as soon as they had come in. Dutiful was still speaking. “Now, I have reason to suspect that we know where they are bound. They can only be headed for the coast, and there are only three close ports where a ship of any size could dock. If there are forty of them, with horse, they will need a substantial vessel to depart.
“We have Skilled journeymen stationed at all the old lookout towers along the coast. I ordered two to ride together, one of them well dosed with elfbark, looking for anything unusual in Forge, Notquite Cove, and Salter’s Deep. At Salter’s Deep, we found what we were looking for. There is a ship tied up at the docks there, one that everyone overlooked except for my Skill-deadened emissary. Her partner could not see it at all. No one knew when it had arrived, what cargo it brought, or what it waited for. Some professed to know nothing of a ship tied up in full view; others could not be stirred to interest. Unfortunately, the local forces cannot capture what they cannot see. But I’ve already sent orders for the king’s guard stationed at Ringhill Tower to procure elfbark, dose the troop, travel to Salter’s Deep, and seize the ship.” He grinned triumphantly. “We have them. We’ve cut them off from escaping!”
My guts tightened. I have always preferred stealth to confrontation. What would happen when the kidnappers arrived at Salter’s Deep and found their escape route cut off? What would I do? “The Chalcedean mercenaries will be desperate. They may kill their captives, or threaten to, when they find they are discovered.”
“They may,” Dutiful conceded. “But look here.” He unrolled the map he’d carried tucked under his arm. Without words, Civil held it while Dutiful pointed at it. “The Ringhill Guard will be at Salter’s Deep in less than two days. The Chalcedeans are traveling slowly and stealthily. We think it will take them three or perhaps four days to reach Salter’s Deep. The outlying areas around Salter’s Deep are thickly forested. Mounted men might ride through, but the sleighs will not go there. They will have to take to the roads or abandon their sleighs. Once the Ringhill Guard has secured the ship, they will split their men. Some will block the road down to the harbor. The others will circle through the hills and come at them from behind.” His finger pinned a point where the road descended from the hills to the rocky shores of Salter’s Deep. “They’ll capture them and rescue Bee and Shine.”
I was already shaking my head. “No. I have to be there. It has to be me.” I could hear how foolish I sounded as I desperately added, “I lost them. I have to get them back.”
Dutiful and Kettricken exchanged a look. “I expected you would say that,” Dutiful said quietly, “as irrational as we all know it to be. And yet I understand it. What would I not do if one of my lads were taken? If you ride out tomorrow morning with your guard, you should arrive shortly after the Ringhill Guard does. You will be there to escort her home.”
“Are there no Skill-stones near Ringhill or Salter’s Deep?”
“That goes beyond irrational to plain stupidity. You cannot use the Skill safely for your own ends right now, let alone take troops through with you. The Ringhill Guard is a substantial force, and we have a Skilled journeyman among them. She will report to us everything that happens. Fitz, you know this is the best tactic. What could one man do against twenty Chalcedean mercenaries?” He paused, giving me an opportunity to agree with him. I could not. He sighed. “And looking at your face, I am glad to tell you that no, we know of no Skill-pillars that would shorten that journey.”
I stared at the map a moment longer. Then I looked out the window, over the vista where Verity had once scanned for his enemies. Salter’s Deep. I had to get there. Dutiful spoke behind me. “Fitz, you well know that a military campaign must be carried out with precision. Everyone follows orders. If each soldier did as he thought best, well. Then it’s a brawl. Not a battle plan.” He cleared his throat. “In this, I am in command. I have set it in motion. It needs to go as I have planned.”
“You are right,” I admitted. I didn’t look at him.
“Fitz. Must I remind you that I am your king?” Dutiful spoke the words gravely.
I met his eyes and spoke truthfully. “I am ever aware of that, my king.”
I had been outnumbered. Outmaneuvered. They’d withheld information from me. Worse, logic and rationality were on their side. They’d told no one who did not need to know. Their plan was good. I knew that they were right, if one considered only logic and rationality. Yet in my father’s heart, I knew they were wrong. It felt awful to stand before them and be lectured by my king and my daughter, to be told that the plan was already made and that my only real option was to fall in with it. I felt suddenly old, and stupid, and useless. The bruises I’d taken in my efforts to once more feel like a warrior, my muscles that screamed at me when I moved, all confirmed my incompetence. My softness. My age. I’d lost my daughter and Shine both by my failed ability to think three steps ahead. I could look back and see a dozen simple things I could have done that would have prevented the kidnapping. For days, I had been burning inside to make it right, to correct my mistakes and go forward and never, never again allow my little girl to fall into such danger.
And today, with the possibility of action dangled like fresh meat before me, I was instead told that others would rescue her and return her to me. Someone else would pick her up and hold her tight and tell her she was safe. Days later, she’d be returned to me, like a lost purse. I could sit home by the fire and wait for her. Or ride out with my guard to meet her rescuers.
I left them there on the tower top, dismissed to inform my small troop of new recruits and salvaged oldsters that we would be riding out on the morrow. I was allowed to tell them that we might actually encounter an enemy, but Dutiful and Elliania, Kettricken, and Nettle had decided that it would be best if alarm was kept at a low level in Buck Duchy until the matter had been settled. The Ringhill Guard was well trained and very experienced at dealing with the robber bands that sometimes plagued the king’s highway. They were the best men for the job. And if any escaped them, my guard would shortly arrive to tidy up any loose ends. The Chalcedeans would have to yield or fall as the jaws of the split force closed around them.
And my Bee would be caught there with them, in the teeth of those jaws.
I went to Chade. Had there ever been a time when I did not flee to him for advice? I tapped on his door, received no answer, and slipped quietly inside. To my disappointment, Steady was there, seated in a chair by the fireside, whittling at something and throwing the bits into the fire as he worked. He did not seem surprised to see me. Nettle had probably warned him I might be coming. “He’s asleep,” he said before I could ask.
“Has anyone told him that we think we know where Bee and Shine are? That we are going to try to recover them?”
He frowned. He was a member of the King’s Own Coterie. My news was no surprise to him, but perhaps he was surprised to discover that I now knew of it. He spoke softly. “I was told that all of it was to be kept secret. Surprising them is of the essence. As for Lord Chade, I am not sure he could mind his tongue. I do not think we should raise either hope or anxiety in him. We are trying to keep him peaceful and calm. Letting him gather himself.”
I shook my head and did not lower my voice. “Do you truly think he can feel any peace while his daughter is in the hands of Chalcedean mercenaries? When all is quiet around me, my fears for your small sister still run rampant in my mind. I have not known a moment of peace since I knew she was taken.”
Steady stared at me, stricken. From his bed, Chade gave the groan of an old man waking. I went to him and took his hand. He stirred very slightly. After a moment, he rolled his head toward me. His eyes were half-open.
“We’ve had news, Chade. The kidnappers were spotted. We believe they are on their way to Salter’s Deep. Dutiful has dispatched troops and we’ll seize the ship that is waiting for them, and then close in on them from behind.”
Chade blinked slowly. I felt a brush of Skill against my mind, softer than a butterfly’s wing. Go now. “Lant,” he said, his voice a bit rusty. “Take Lant. He feels so guilty. That they took her. Left him alive.” He paused and swallowed. “Save his pride. It’s taken a beating.”
“I’ll share the news,” I promised. For a moment, our gazes held. His look mirrored what I felt. He lay there, an old, aching man in his bed, while his daughter was in danger. And no one had even told him that she might be rescued, lest such news alarm him. Or prompt him to rash action. “I have to go,” I apologized but he knew it was a promise. “I need to give orders for my guard to prepare for tomorrow.”
For a moment, his gaze brightened. “Roust them out,” he told me. One of his eyelids sagged shut, then he opened both eyes wide. “We’re not done yet, boy. You and I, we’re not done yet.”
Then his eyes closed, he heaved a great sigh, and his breathing became regular again. I lingered a bit longer, his hand in mine. I glanced at Steady. “I doubt he’s a threat to our secrecy.” Then I tucked his hand back under his covers and left the room quietly.
I had not seen much of Lant since he had returned from Buckkeep. He had not really crossed my mind at all. And when he did, he left an unpleasant scent in my thoughts. He was a stony reminder of all the ways I had failed. I hadn’t protected him, or Shine, or my little girl. And in a dark corner of my heart, despite knowing he could not have done so, anger burned in me that he had not given up his own life before allowing Bee to be taken.
A page passed me, carrying someone’s laundry. “Lass, I’ve a task for you, when you’ve finished that one.”
She very nearly rolled her eyes, and then recognized me. “Of course, Prince FitzChivalry.” It’s difficult to bob a curtsy with both arms full of laundry, but she managed.
“Thank you. Find Lord FitzVigilant. Tell him I’ve urgent news to share with him. And remind him to visit Lord Chade today.”
“Of course, my prince.”
My prince. I wasn’t anyone’s prince today. I was a father.
I went directly to the practice grounds. I found Foxglove sitting on a bench outside the weapons sheds, rubbing liniment into her hand and wrist. She’d changed since I’d made her the captain of my guard. Her graying hair was severely braided into a warrior’s tail and her garb more leather than fabric now. She rubbed the ointment into her ropy, veiny wrist and hand. I cleared my throat and she looked up at me. Before she could rise, I sat down on the bench beside her. “I have to ask you to have my guard ready to ride beside me at dawn,” I said.
Her eyes flew wide. I held up a hand. As quickly and simply as I could, I told her all. She was my captain, my right hand. It would not have been right to ask her to ride blindly beside me. I doubted we were going into a confrontation. We’d simply be there in time to take charge of Bee after she had been rescued. But if by any chance we did have to cross swords with anyone, I wanted her to know why. And to know what was at stake.
She was the perfect second-in-command. She listened to me and accepted what I told her. Then she glanced at her boots and said, “Were it my operation, I would not go about it that way.”
“Stealth. Get up on them while they are resting or asleep. Find out where the captives are and worry first about protecting them. Or employ simple bargaining. They’re mercenaries. Mercenaries can be bought. Whatever they’re being paid, we offer them more and safe passage. Later, after the girls are safe, we can decide if we are bound by our words. We can always poison the stores on board that ship and then let them go their merry way.”
I stared at her dumbly for a moment. Then I said in honest admiration, “I like how you think.”
She gave a brief snort of laughter. “Do you? I’m a bit surprised. I know when you asked me to take this duty that you meant it as an honor to me. And as a way to keep yourself from being bothered with it. But I’ve seen war and I’ve seen peace and I know well that there is never truly one or the other. And being ready for war is better than being ready for peace, if peace is what you truly hope for. So. I’ve only had them a few days, but I started with quality, and I’ve seen a lot of improvements since then. Still, if we are riding into real fighting, then the first thing I’ll tell you is, we don’t have enough soldiers and what we do have are not ready. They’ll die.”
She spoke as if she were talking about seeds that would fail to sprout, not as if she were speaking of her grandchildren.
“I can get more,” I said unwillingly. “King Dutiful put the fate of the Rousters into my hands. If there’s anyone there worth having, you can take them.”
She made a face. “As men, they’re worth nothing. As swords, we’ll take them all. They won’t respect me, and in all honesty I’m not sure I can win their respect without killing one of them. I’ve never killed anyone wearing the blue, and I don’t want to start at this stage in my life.”
I stood up. I knew what she was asking me. I didn’t wait for her to put it in words. “I’ll put them on notice to be ready to ride tomorrow. And I’ll see that they respect us.”
She gave a tight nod.
The delay chafed. I’d already delegated my task from Chade. This was one I had to do myself. So do it swiftly, even if it has to be done dirty. Get clear of it and go. Failure to do it might result in losses for my guard. Do it. I owed this to Foxglove.
A pang of guilt. Dutiful was my king. Did not I owe him obedience? The prince did, I decided. Bee’s father did not.
As I walked away from her, I wondered if I were truly up to this anymore. Foxglove’s puppies were still battering me when I took up an axe, and I was just holding my own with a sword. Sixty years sat on my shoulders. I was many years out of practice at real fighting. All the discouragement I had felt earlier in the day came to whisper in my ears. Maybe Dutiful and Nettle were right to tell me that the best I could do was to comfort my child. I knew how far it was to Salter’s Deep. One man alone on a good horse, pushing himself and his animal and going cross-country instead of by the roads, could make it there in a day and a half. The younger Fitz would have been in the saddle as soon as he heard the name of the place.
And I, I calculated men and odds and knew with an old man’s experience that I’d likely be dead before I got near Bee. She would watch me die and then who would there be for her? Don’t be stupid, I counseled myself. At the head of my guard, leaving at dawn tomorrow, there was still a chance that we would be in time to at least lend our strength to the Ringhill Guard. Dutiful was giving me that.
Wisdom tasted as bad as rancid meat. I’d need the Rousters. I didn’t want them, but Foxglove would need them. I made a brief stop in my room and then went in search of them.
I did not find them on the practice yards or in the steams or even in the guards’ mess. I hated the wasted time so much that I took a horse from the stables and rode down the hill. I did not have to go all the way to Buckkeep Town. On the edge of the sprawling growth from the town, I entered the tavern called the Lusty Buck, just past the blackened ruins of the Bawdy Trout. It was exactly the sort of place I had expected it to be. The door did not fit tight in the jamb; a door can only be knocked off its hinges so many times before it always hangs askew. Inside, the candles were few and dark corners many. The air was ripe with cheap, coarse Smoke and the vinegary smell of spilled wine never completely mopped up. A woman smiled wearily at me as I came in; one of her eyes was swollen near shut and I could feel only pity for her. I wondered if debt had put her here. I shook my head at her and stood just within the door, letting my eyes adjust to the dimness.
The Rousters were scattered round the room. They were a small troop, and the losses Chade and I had inflicted on them had reduced them even more. There were perhaps twenty-seven troops in the dark-blue livery. There were a few sodden regulars mixed in with them, a handful of soldiers from other guard companies, and a scattering of weary whores, but the Rousters dominated with their dark jerkins and darker expressions. One or two had turned to look at me as I ran my eyes over them, trying to appraise them.
“Rousters. To me!”
The command should at least have brought them to their feet. Heads turned toward me and many who stared were blearily the worse for drink. Only a few lurched unsteadily upright. I suspected they had been here since they’d stabled their horses on their return from Withywoods. I didn’t repeat my order. Instead I asked of the air, “Who’s in charge, Rousters? I know some of your officers went down near Oaksbywater. Where is Sergeant Goodhand?”
I had expected one of the older guards to stand. Instead it was a youngster with a patchy beard who spoke without rising. The heels of his boots rested on the corner of his table. “I’m here.”
I waited for someone to laugh or contradict him. No one did. Very well. “Sergeant Goodhand, muster your troop and bring them up to the practice fields. I need to speak to them.” I turned to go.
“Not today,” he told my back. “We’re just home from a long ride. And we’re in mourning. Maybe a couple days from now.”
That brought a mutter of suppressed laughter.
There were a hundred ways to deal with that level of insubordination. I sorted through all of them as I turned and made my unhurried way through the tables to him, stripping my left glove from my hand as I came. I smiled at him, sharing his amusement. He did not move.
“Ah. I think I’ve heard of you,” I said as I slowly walked toward him. “My stable boy. Perseverance. I believe you backhanded him when he came to the defense of Thick. The king’s companion.”
He gave a single guffaw. “The king’s half-wit!”
“That’s the one.” I did not lose my smile but I suddenly moved faster. I reached him as he was just moving his feet from the table to the floor. He was sneering at me as I hit him so hard I felt his cheekbones crunch under my fist. He’d already been off balance. As he teetered in his chair, I kicked the legs out from under it. He went all the way to the floor. I added a solid boot to his midsection where his ribs did not protect him. He curled up tightly.
“And now I’m in charge,” I told him.
The silence that fell was not a good one. It simmered with anger. I spoke into it.
“King Dutiful gave you to me to keep or discard. Right now, I have a use for your swords. If you want to continue to be members of any guard company, form up on the practice grounds. Report to Captain Foxglove. Respect her. She’ll be selecting which of you we keep. Now. Anyone who chooses not to form up is dismissed from the Buckkeep Guard. Forever.”
I stood still one breath longer. Then I walked unhurriedly toward the door, every sense prickling in case someone attacked me from behind. As I stepped back into the snowy street, I heard one of the women say, “That was the Witted Bastard, that was. What he did was mild compared with what he could’ve done. You’re lucky he didn’t turn into a wolf and rip your throats out.”
I smiled as I drew my left glove on, mounted the horse, and rode away. Inside the weighted gauntlet, my right fist still ached, but not as much as it would have if my fist had been bare. Chade had taught me always to protect my knuckles.
Go now, my heart urged me. Prepare, said my head.
For a change, I took the wiser advice.
I did not think about what I was doing as I carefully measured the elfbark and made my tea. It was not the Outislander stuff, but the weaker herb we harvested in the Six Duchies. And this was freshly harvested by me, from an elf tree near the old well outside the walls. Winter-harvested, so I was making it strong. But not too strong, or I’d disappear from the coterie’s awareness entirely. Strong enough that I could stop thinking about my walls constantly. Strong enough to deaden my Skill but leave my Wit completely unaffected.
I drank it and went up to visit the Fool. I found him stretched out on the floor flat on his back. “I’m fine,” he said before I could express alarm. As I watched, he lifted both his feet off the floor and, legs straight, raised them as high as he could. It was not high. I winced for him as he held them, breathing stiffly. I did not speak to him until he lowered his feet to the floor again.
“I’m feeling restless. I think I’m going to go for a long ride. Want to come with me?”
He turned his head toward me. “Not yet. But thank you for thinking I might. I’m feeling stronger. And . . . braver. The dreams help.”
“I have dragon dreams, Fitz. I battle for a mate I desire. And I win.” A very strange smile suffused his face. “I win,” he said again, softly. He lifted his feet off the floor. He held them off the floor, toes pointed. They began to tremble and he lowered them again. He bent his knees and tried to curl to meet them. Limbering himself. Even I was more flexible than that. But he would fight his way back. I heard him groan.
“Don’t push yourself too hard.”
He lowered his feet. “I must. When I think it is too hard, I think of our daughter. And I find determination.”
I had been moving about my task. Those words halted me in place.
“What are you doing?” he asked me.
“Chade’s shelf of herbs and elixirs is a bit untidy. I need to remind Ash to be more careful.” A very unfair lie. I was able to find everything I needed immediately. Distract him. “I’m glad of your dreams. I just wanted you to know that you might not see me tonight.”
The smile twisted. “Even if you were here, I wouldn’t see you,” he reminded me.
I groaned, he laughed at me, and I left.
My saddle-pack was not heavy. Carris seed and elfbark weigh little. Some carryme, willowbark, valerian. I prayed Bee would not need it. I chose a warmer cloak. I exchanged the weighted gloves for warmer ones. A good wool scarf around my throat. The change of clothing for Bee. Only the most basic supplies. Done.
I shut my door and turned as Lant reached the top of the stairs and bolted toward me. Damn my luck.
“Fitz!” he cried and halted a few steps from me, clutching at his half-healed wound.
“Catch your breath,” I suggested to him. In a lower voice, I added, “And speak softly.”
He was panting. “Yes,” he agreed. He put his hand out and leaned his weight on the wall. “I went to Chade. There were two healers in his room. He told me to come to you.”
I had no time to be oblique. I spoke quietly. “We’ve had word of where we might find the mercenaries who took Shine and Bee. The Ringhill Guard will ambush and surround them. Tomorrow at first light my guard rides out to Salter’s Deep. They will probably miss the Ringhill Guard recapturing them, but at least they can be there to lend some comfort.”
“Shine,” he said and a conflict of emotions trampled his face. “I thought . . . But of course that is her name. And of course I want to ride with you.”
“Lord Chade thought you might. But are you sure you’re ready for a long ride like that? If you cannot keep up—”
“You’ll leave me. I know. Of course you must! No, I’ll be ready to ride with you at first light.”
“Fine. I’ll see you then. I’ve things to prepare.” I walked away, hoping he would cling to the wall a bit longer. Instead he gave a groan and a grunt as he stood almost straight and then followed me. He walked beside me in silence for a time. Just as it began to grow awkward, he spoke.
“I didn’t know she was my sister.”
Sweet Eda, please don’t let him confide in me! “Neither did I, Lant. I had not even realized you were my cousin.”
“Cousin,” he said softly as if that had never occurred to him. Then he said slowly, “It will be awkward for us when first we meet again . . .”
The least of my worries. “I will speak to her first, if there is privacy to do so. But if not, you will have to handle it discreetly. Especially if there are others within earshot.”
“I have no wish to hurt her.”
I sighed. “Lant, I know this is foremost in your thoughts. But in mine is the fear that she may already be grievously hurt. Or that the Ringhill Guard will not prevail, or that the mercenaries will either harm, kill, or use their captives as bargaining chips. Those are the things I must give my thoughts to.”
As I spoke his face grew paler. So gently reared was this young man. I knew with sudden certainty that I should not let him go with me into any kind of an armed encounter, let alone what might be the end of a pitched battle between the Ringhill Guard and the Chalcedean mercenaries. I needed all my attention on Bee, not worrying that I might have to protect Lant. I stopped walking and he was grateful. “Are you sure you are well enough recovered from your injuries to ride with us? Or swing a sword?”
“I must go,” he said. He knew my thoughts. Pride stiffened his spine. “I must go, and if I fail, then you must leave me. But I must try. I didn’t protect Shun—I mean, Shine—at Withywoods. I cannot fail her now.”
I gritted my teeth together and nodded. He hadn’t even mentioned Bee. My anger was pointless: He was blind where my child was concerned. I reminded myself that he was Chade’s son and Nettle thought well of him. I forced myself to recall how stupid Hap had been at his age. Then I admitted to myself that I’d been even more obstinate and foolish than either of them. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Lant. Perhaps for her sake, and yours, you should not be there. Go to the healer and get a fresh dressing on that shoulder. Rest. Look after Chade for me.”
I patted his shoulder and walked away. As I went, I heard him say to the air, “Because that is what you would do? I doubt it.”
The Rousters had assembled in the practice yard. It was on my way to the stables. When I went to meet them, Foxglove walked at my side. Sergeant Goodhand hadn’t come. I doubted we’d see him again. Twenty-one of the Rousters had seen fit to form up. I recognized some of them from the Withywoods contingent; others were new to me. I introduced Foxglove as their new commander, and summoned the three most senior in their ranks to come forward. Their length of service had possibly contributed to their battered appearance, but the missing teeth and crumpled ears spoke to me more of brawling than combat. It did not matter. They were what I had. Foxglove took their names and assigned them rank. None of them looked pleased but they did not argue with her. They followed her as she walked down the line of Rousters and immediately dismissed four of them. I did not challenge her decision.
After that, I let Foxglove give them their orders. They were to be mounted and ready at dawn, with four days’ dry rations. They were to be sober enough to ride and dressed for winter travel, with weapons for close-quarters combat. At that, I saw interest kindle in their eyes, but we gave them no more information. I delivered my own message to them. “King Dutiful gave you into my hands. Those of you who acquit yourselves well in the next ten days will remain as part of my guard, but not in the Rouster colors. The Rousters are to be disbanded. Those of you who prove cowardly, lazy, or simply stupid will be dismissed. That’s all I have to say to you.” Foxglove released them and we watched them slouch away.
“They hate you right now,” she observed.
“I don’t care.”
“You’ll care if you get an arrow in the back.”
A sour smile twisted my mouth. “You think I’d be leading the charge?” I considered my next words carefully. “Leave at dawn. I’ll catch up with you. And don’t put anyone wearing my Bastard’s badge in the way of an arrow in the back. Let the Rousters go in first.”
“The Charging Bucks Guard will be ready,” she promised, and I nodded at her correction. She squinted at me, the lines in her brow getting deeper. “What are you planning, Fitz?”
“I’m planning to take my daughter back.”
I turned and left her scowling after me.
In the stables, I saddled the roan. I secured my saddle-pack. I found I was humming, exhilarated. So good to be doing something, to have stopped waiting. I filled a grain bag for the roan and added it to my supplies. I was just finishing when Perseverance came around the corner.
“I’m supposed to do that for you!” he exclaimed indignantly.
I smiled at him. “Would you like it if another man saddled your horse for you?”
His indignation deepened. “Of course not!”
“There you have it,” I said, and laughed. He looked startled. I suppose he’d never heard me laugh before.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Going out for a long ride. I grew up here, but it has been a long time since I rode through these hills. I might be late coming back. There’s an inn down near the river that I used to frequent when I was a young man. I’ve a mind to dine there tonight.”
“With a battle-axe?”
“Oh. That. I’m dropping it off for Foxglove with a smith she likes. She wants a longer haft put on it.”
There was a heartbeat of silence. I lifted one brow at him. He quailed.
“Very well, sir. Do you wish me to ride along?”
“No, no. There’s no need for that.”
In a much softer voice he asked me, “Has there been any news of Bee, sir? Lady Bee?”
I took a breath. Not a lie. “We’ve had all manner of folk out looking.” He nodded then opened the stall door for me, and I led the roan out. Excitement shivered over her as if she shook a fly from her withers.
Me, too, I told her. Me, too.