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Chapter Thirty-Four


From Queen Malta and King Reyn of the Dragon Traders, greetings to King Dutiful and Queen Elliania of the Six Duchies!

We wish to express our great satisfaction with our recent trade negotiations. Our delegations have praised your hospitality, your courtesy, and your willingness to negotiate. The samples of trade-goods we have received are definitely to our satisfaction, particularly the grain, brandy, and leather.

Our long-standing agreements with our fellow Traders must prevail, however. Elderling-made goods will be released only through our contacts in Bingtown. We are sure you must be aware of our traditional and familial connections there. We are confident that you will understand our reluctance to abandon those generational alliances.

While we will not be trading Elderling goods for Six Duchies goods, we promise that our coinage is uniform and unadulterated. As it is a relatively new currency, we understand your reluctance to accept it but if you continue to refuse, we can only turn elsewhere to form our trade alliances, as we are certain you clearly understand.

As regards the dragons, we appreciate all your concerns. But we hold no authority over the dragons, nor do they owe us any obedience. While we enjoy a deep friendship with the dragons and savor their companionship, we cannot pretend to make any agreements on their behalf, nor do we claim any influence over them to moderate their behavior when in your territory.

Some individual dragons are amenable to forming agreements about where they hunt or accepting designated largesse when they are visiting foreign countries. The best time to negotiate with dragons is when they wake after they have eaten and slept. Attempting to greet or negotiate with an unfed dragon is not advisable. If you wish, we would be happy to share more of our knowledge of dragons with you, but claim no expertise that will bind them to any agreements.

Again we thank you for your gracious reception of our trade delegation. We look forward to a long and prosperous commerce between our domains.

Did they say nothing of why they were going to Kelsingra? Did they tell you when they might return? Why did they think they had to move on immediately? Why did the Fool not wait for me?

Neither Lant nor Per had answers to those questions or any of the others that I asked. I paced like a caged wolf, going from the fire to the stone pillar and back again. I dared myself to follow them, but knew Id be abandoning Lant and Perseverance to their deaths if I did not return. Then I asked myself if that duty was not just a cover for my own cowardice. A question to which I had no answer.

We ate the hare, drank the broth, and made a fruity tea from the berries Id found. While Id been away, Lant and Per had made improvements to our camp. Theyd dragged a longer piece of log to the fireside for us to sit on and had arranged our supplies more efficiently. I looked at the large pack that the Fool and Spark had left. Plainly they had packed for a substantial journey. But if these supplies were for Kelsingra, why had they left them here? And if the Fool had wished to journey with me, why had he and Spark gone on without me? I sat and stared at the fire and waited.

Should I take the first watch? Per asked me.

His voice startled me. I turned to look at his worried face. No, Per. Im not tired yet. You get some sleep. Ill wake you when its your watch.

He sat down beside me. I slept while you were gone. There was little else to do. So Im not tired, either.

I didnt argue with him. Later, when it was his turn to keep watch, hed learn that hed made a poor choice. Lant had already gone to bed. For a time, we stared at the fire in silence.

Why were they dressed like girls?

Secrets, secrets, secrets. Who owned the secrets? Youd need to ask them about that.

He was quiet for a while. Then he asked, Is Ash a girl?

Youd need to ask Ash about that.

I did. And he asked me why I was dressed as a boy.

And what did you answer to that? I prodded him.

He was quiet again and then said, That means hes a girl.

I didnt say that.

You didnt have to. He hunched tighter toward the fire. Why would Ash pretend to be a boy?

Youd need to ask Spark about that.

Spark. The name annoyed him. He scowled and wrapped his arms around himself. Im not going to bother. I dont trust him any longer. His face set into hardness. I dont need a friend who deceives me.

I took a deep breath and then sighed it out. There were a hundred things I could say to him. A hundred questions I could ask that might make him see things differently. But being told something is not the same as learning it. I thought of all the things Verity had told me. Burrichs stern advice. Patiences counsel. But when had I learned?

Talk to Spark, I said.

His silence was long. Maybe, he said at last.

Since, as he said, he seemed wide awake, I left him sitting there, shoved Lant over to make room, and crawled under the blankets. I gnawed on my questions. I must have slept, because I woke when Lant traded places with Per. The boy pushed his back up against mine, sighed heavily, and soon began to snore. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. After a time, I got up and went to join Lant by the fire. He was heating snow-water in a pot for tea. I sat down beside him and stared into the flames.

Why do you dislike me so much?

I didnt need to think about it. You made my daughter unhappy. And when I had to entrust her to you, you didnt care for her or comfort her. Revel was the one to come and take her in from the snowy wagon.

He was silent. We were confused, Shine and I. We could make no sense of what you and Riddle were doing. You told us next to nothing. I tried to take Bee out of the wagon and she acted like. . .like a sulky child. I was tired, and cold, and angry with you. So I left her to find her own way in. If none of this had happened, would it have been so important? Fitz, I did not want to be a scribe, let alone a tutor to children. I wanted to be at Buckkeep Castle, with my friends, following my own life. Ive never had the care of children, and even you must admit that Bee was no ordinary child.

Thats enough, I suggested pleasantly. He had stirred guilt in me, until his last words.

Im not like you! he burst out. Im not like my father. I tried to be, to please him. But Im not! And I dont want to be. Im here, Im going with you, because, yes, I failed your daughter. Just as much as I failed my sister. My sister. Do you know how it twists inside me to name her that? What they did to Shine, to my sisterit makes me ill to think of her hurt that way. I want to avenge her, I want to avenge Bee. I know I cant undo what happened. I cant change what I did, only what I will do. And Im not doing this for you, or even for my father. Im doing it for me. To give myself whatever peace I can find over what happened.

I dont know how Ill help you or what youll ask me to do or if I can do it. But Im here. I intend to try. And I cant go home until this is done. But I do want to go home, after all this is over, and I want to go home alive. So youd better start talking to me and telling me what is going on, or teaching me what I have to do. Or something. Because Im with you now until you go home. Or Im dead. And I think that boy is, too.

I dont want you here. I didnt want you to come.

Yet here we are. And I dont think even you are spiteful enough to let me die of ignorance.

That was true. I had almost thought of a response when I heard a muffled shriek. It burst suddenly louder and was followed by the sound of a wild struggle over by the Skill-pillar. Lant had the presence of mind to seize a flaming stick from the fire. I reached the pillar first but when Lant lifted the brand I shouted, Get back! Dont touch the Fool and dont let him touch you! And in the next breath, I told him, Drag Spark over by the fire. Wake Per. Get water heating.

Spark was twitching and yelping like a dog having a bad dream, but her eyes were open. I feared for her. Many years ago, Id seen what a trip through a Skill-portal could do to unprepared minds. Regal had driven many of his young Skill-apprentices mad when he had attempted to send a small army through a pillar. Spark was unSkilled and had just experienced her third trip through a Skill-portal in less than a day. I was angry at the Fool for risking the youngster, and heartsick that I would be helpless to aid her. I feared even more for the Fool. I prayed that the uneven light of the burning branch tricked my eyes, for it looked to me as if his left hand was unevenly silvered with Skill.

He lay on his back, staring up at me and panting. His blind eyes were wide and the torchlight danced in their golden depths. The skirts he wore were flung wide around him, like a collapsed tent.

I heard Pers sleepy voice raised in query, and Lant shouting at him to build up the fire, pack the pot with snow, get it melting, and bring a blanket for him to put around Spark. Id let them create and manage that chaos. They were doing as much for Spark as I knew to do. Keep her warm and try to get food into her. I moved carefully to the Fools right side, away from the dangerously silvered hand. Fool, I said in as even a voice as I could muster. Fool, can you hear me? Can you speak to me?

The dragon! His words shuddered on a gasp. Is the dragon coming?

I lifted my eyes to the night sky. I saw nothing except stars frozen and twinkling in the darkness. There is no dragon that I can see.

It chased us. And we ran, with Spark gripping my hand and dragging me through the streets. They were crowded with Elderlings laughing and talking, and we ran and ran, we ran right through all of them. Spark shouted they werent real, that only the dragon was. But one of them was real, I think. One Elderling. I felt that arrow. He paused, panting for breath.

Were you hit? Was Spark?

I dont know. With his right hand, he plucked at the loose fabric of the shoulder of his blouse. I felt it, as if someone had seized me hard for just a moment and then let go. Spark kept running, dragging me along, and I tried to keep up. Then she shouted, The pillar! and I slapped it. And here we are. Oh, here we are, Fitz. Dont be angry at me. Please dont be angry.

Im not angry, I lied. Im terrified for both of you. That was rock-hard truth. I spoke carefully. Fool, it looks as if you have Skill on your left hand. As Verity did when he carved the dragons. Im going to help you stand and walk you to the fire. Dont touch yourself with that hand and dont touch me. The failing light of the torch licked along his brightly shining fingers. Id never discovered precisely where Verity had obtained so much of the raw magic. My king had coated both his hands in it, the better to shape a dragon from stone. The raw Skill had penetrated his flesh and stolen the focus of his mind. By the time we found him, he had scarcely recognized his queen. Kettricken had wept to see him so, but all he had cared for at that moment was to carve his dragon.

Yes, he said, and his smile was beatific and frightening in the torchlight. He held his silvered fingers up, and I shrank back from them. That much I managed. Against all odds. I brought a glove with me, in the wild hope I might succeed. Its in the pocket of my skirt.

Right or left side?

Right, he said and feebly patted there.

I did not want to touch his garments. I didnt know how he had gotten raw Skill on his left hand but I feared it might be spattered elsewhere. I thrust the base of my branch, which now had but a single dancing flame on it, into the snow and found the edge of a white glove peeking from a pocket concealed in the voluminous skirts. I tugged it free. Put your right hand on my wrist so you can feel what Im doing. Im holding the glove open. Oh, Fool, be so careful. I dont want that stuff on me.

If you could feel it as I do, you would, he said. It burns so sweetly.

Fool, I beg you, be careful of me.

I will. As I so seldom have before. Hold the glove wide, Fitz.

And I did. Dont let your left hand touch the outside of it. Dont touch your left hand with your right.

I know what Im doing.

I muttered a small curse that expressed my doubt about that, and he appalled me by laughing. Give me the glove, he added. I can do it myself.

I watched him anxiously, worried that he would silver either his right hand or the outside of the glove. I was not confident of the failing torchlight but I thought he had managed. Can you stand and walk?

I put on a glove. Wasnt that enough for you?

I suppose it was. I maneuvered an arm around him and hauled him to his feet. It took more effort than Id expected and I abruptly realized the weight of the skirts and the fur-lined cloak he wore. This way. We have a fire.

I can sense it.

He was not steady on his feet but he walked. Sense it? Or see the light against the dark?

Both, and more. I think its a dragon-sense, from the dragon blood. I smell the fire, I see the light it gives off, but more. Theres something I cant quite describe. Its not my eyes, Fitz, but I sense warmth. The warmth of your body, and the greater heat of the fire. I can tell you that Lant stands to the left of it, and Perseverance crouches by Spark. Is she all right?

Lets find out, I suggested, swallowing my fears. I had the Wit so I knew what it was to have a sense that others did not possess. If he said he could sense my warmth, why doubt him? I knew that on the far side of the market-circle, a bitch fox watched us from the darkness of the forest edge. My Wit told me that. I would not dispute what his dragon-sense told him.

My heart sank as I steadied the Fool toward the fire. Spark sprawled in the snow, making pathetic little sounds, like a kitten mewling for its mother. Her hands scrabbled and her booted feet kicked uselessly. Per was hunkered down beside her. The conflict on his face was as shifting as the firelight. Fear. Sympathy. Uneasiness. Confusion.

Theres a log here. Behind you. A little more. Sit down.

The Fool sat, more abruptly than I intended. Uneasiness rippled through me as he carefully gathered his skirts around him. The white glove on his left hand was feminine, as was his movement as he adjusted the hood of his cloak. I saw Lants lip twitch, as if he were a cat smelling something foul. I felt a surge of irritation with him. Spark. How is she? I asked Perseverance, and he flinched at the name.

I dont know.

I crouched down beside the girl and spoke for the Fools benefit. Shes not unconscious. Her eyes are open and shes making sounds. But there is no awareness in her eyes. I lifted my gaze to Per. May I please have the butterfly cloak? Lets keep her as warm as we can.

Without hesitation, he stood up, shed the garment, and handed it to me. I took off one of the cloaks I was wearing and gave it to him. He bundled into it gratefully as I tucked one edge of the butterfly cloak under Spark, rolled her onto it, and then snugged it around her, leaving only her face bare. She looked like a brightly colored cocoon. Her sounds grew softer and became a high soft humming. Her twitching eased. Tell me everything, I commanded the Fool.

He pulled his cloak more closely around himself. Even in the cold winter air, I could smell the mustiness of it. It was thick wool, lined with fur, from Lady Thymes closet. The heavy woolen skirts he wore came down to the top of his boots, which were leather, cut more for a city street than a snowy forest. He brushed his short, pale hair back from his brow and gave a small sigh. You left me. You told me you were going to do it, and I heard in your voice that you meant it. So I immediately made my other arrangements. I wasnt happy to do it, Fitz, but you left me no choice. I persuaded Spark that my place was beside you, as indeed it is in this venture. Lady Rosemary had dismissed her, to fend for herself in Buckkeep Castle, so it took little effort to make her completely mine. I persuaded her to attempt a foray back into Chades old quarters. She procured the dragons blood for me.

Why dragons blood?

Hush. Let me speak. He looked unerringly at Lant. There are tea herbs in that pack we left. Left front pocket. He glanced over at the pot. The water will boil soon. Lant did not move instantly, but then he rose and turned toward the tent. There are two cups in the pack also. The tea is a restorative one. It may help Spark, he called after Lant, then shifted his attention back to me. The clothing was easier. No one bothered us about that. Its from Lady Thymes wardrobe, of course. Spark said the lock on the door was a good one, but old. And she had been taught how to outwit locks. Once we were in, we took the greater part of an afternoon to select what we wished. And Spark proved to have a knack at adjusting clothing for size. That was what took the most time. She had to move it, a garment or two at a time, down to my rooms, and there she worked on the cutting and fitting and hemming. We were mostly finished with it the last time you came battering at the door. I dared not let you in for fear you would immediately guess our plan.

It did not escape me that he had deflected my question about dragons blood. Id have to corner him later and pester it out of him. Lant came back with the tea herbs. He glanced at me and I nodded, and he went about that task. Per had drawn closer to listen to the tale. The Fool turned his blind eyes in the boys direction and smiled at him. Per bowed his head. I did not blame him. The Fools golden gaze had become a daunting thing to meet.

How did you get to the Witness Stones? I could not imagine the blind Fool and the burdened girl making that trek.

We didnt. The Fool spoke starkly. In the dark of night, we dressed warmly and Spark shouldered our pack. She had obtained a walking staff for me. And we went down to the dungeons of Buckkeep. It was a trick to get past the guards, but when they changed for the night, we managed it. And Spark had done it before, following Chade. She knew where to take us. Dutiful had put an iron grate across that corridor, and locked it securely, but again Spark knew the trick of opening it. And once we were through, we took our first big gamble. She spread dragon blood on the palm of my hand, then held tight to me. I pressed my palm to the old Skill-stone, the one that whoever rebuilt Buckkeep Castle from an Elderling ruin had used in the foundation. And it worked. We stepped out in Aslevjal.

I recalled it well. I stared at him. How long did you stay there?

Long enough to locate the correct facet of the pillar to bring us here. Another smear of dragon blood and on we came. Only to find Lant and Perseverance here. I was startled to find them. Spark, however, seemed almost to expect Perseverance. Though I sensed a bit of a chill from him when he saw how we were dressed. He turned his blind gaze on the lad again. Per said nothing and stared at the fire. I guessed where you had gone. I even considered following you. I would like to once more walk in the Stone Garden. To touch Verity-as-Dragon. A strange smile curved his mouth. To touch, a last time, Girl-on-a-Dragon. Did you visit her?

No. I didnt. In some ways, the thought of that stone dragon still put a chill up my spine.

He lowered his voice. Will she recover? Spark?

I wanted to be angry with him, to demand he tell me why he had risked her so wildly. I dont know. Four portal journeys in less than two days? Id never attempt it. Well keep her as warm as we can, try to get a hot drink down her, and wait. Its all I know to do. I bit back the recriminations and questions. I would love to understand why you seem so little affected.

He suddenly sat up straight and stared around the ancient pavilion almost as if he could see. Fitz. We camped here. Do you recall? When I was dead?

How could I not recall it? I ignored the peculiar looks that both Per and Lant were giving me. They had been staring at the fire but hanging on the edges of our conversation avidly. I had no intention of explaining to them what had happened here on that long-ago summer day. Just the Fools mention of it had brought it vividly to mind. It was not that I had become him in death that still shook me to my core; it was the remembrance of how, as we had traded our bodies that he might resume his existence as the Fool, we had mingled and for that long instant, become one creature. One being.

And it had felt so correct. So perfectly balanced.

It was here, I confirmed again.

It was. And when we left here, we left my things here. The Elderling tent. My little cook-pot. . .

Decades ago, I reminded him.

But they were Elderling-made. And you made our camp on the pavilion stones. Do you recall where we camped? Could you look for whats left of them, under the snow?

I could. I recalled where I had pitched the tent, recalled, too, where I had built the funeral pyre for him. Possibly.

Please, Fitz. Look for them now. It would be warm shelter for all of us. Even if only enough of it remains to be blankets, it will warm us better than wool and furs.

Very well. I knew Id get no more of the tale out of him until I had done as he asked. I found a likely branch and thrust it into the fire. As I waited for it to kindle into a torch, I asked Per, How is she? He had gradually edged closer to his friend.

Shes stopped moaning and muttering. Shes still now. Is that good?

I dont know. I think shes been through four Skill-pillar trips in quick succession. Im not sure I could survive that, let alone an untrained mind like hers.

But Mage Gryour friend seems unscathed.

I said nothing to that. I didnt want to speak of dragon blood and how Id seen the Fool changing since hed drunk it, let alone smeared it on his palm. Keep her warm. Talk to her. Be her anchor to this world. Lant, come with me, please.

He rose with alacrity, and as I held our pathetic torch aloft, he followed me into darkness. I took a bearing from the Skill-pillar, and recalled where the ornamental stone wall had been in relation to our tent. And the funeral pyre had been there. I lifted the torch higher. Was there a slight mound there beneath the snow, the reminder of limbs and logs and branches that had rotted there for years? I walked toward it.

The tent had been beyond it. I walked more slowly, kicking my feet deeper into the snow, trying to get the soles of my boots all the way down to the stone of the pavilion. And suddenly my toe caught and dragged on something. Was it possible that anything of the Fools grand tent remained after all these years? I hooked my toe under it and pulled it up to the surface. Fabric. Brightly dyed so that the colors shone even in our feeble torchlight. All those years ago, the Fool and I had donned winter clothing and just walked away from this camp. Through the Skill-portal and back to Aslevjal I had taken him. All those years ago, and his grand tent was still here, collapsed under the snow.

Help me drag this free, I said to Lant, and he posted the flaming branch in the snow and bent to seize the edge of the fabric. We both pulled. It was heavy work, for more than snow weighted it. Fallen leaves and bits of moss, all the detritus that had seemed to vanish from both the pavilion and the Skill-road, were layered upon it. It came free slowly. As it emerged from the snow and I shook litter from it, the limber supports that held the tent up revived slightly, lifting the bright parade of dragons and serpents into view.

It took some time for us to drag it free. The torch burned out and still we struggled. There were objects inside the tent, so abruptly had the Fool and I departed, and I dreaded we would tear it before it came free, but it held. I recalled well how it had blocked out the icy winds of Aslevjal, and how the warmth of our bodies had been enough to heat it. Even if it was no longer tight, it would be shelter for our enlarged party. We dragged it slowly to our fireside. Frost rimed the bright panels, and it was hard to find the collapsed entry. We found it, I said, and the Fool beamed like a child.

Spark was still, her eyes open and her lips moving slightly. From time to time, the direction of her gaze shifted, and once she smiled at no one. Her lips moved, speaking silently. Revelation struck me.

How can I have been so stupid? We have to get her off the stone flagging, away from the pavilion. Look at her. The stones are speaking to her.

That whispering? Lant asked, alarmed. I thought it wind in the trees last night. Per did not hear it at all.

And you, too, I announced.

It was hard work in the dark and the cold. I put Lant and Per to digging a small fire-pit under the evergreens where the snow was shallowest. I lifted Spark and placed her inside my tent. Then I took the task of shaking the last of the snow and moss from the Elderling tent and stretching it out to find the corners. I had never paused to look at the supports before. They were white and reminded me of baleen from a great whale. I set them aside, and went back to where we had salvaged the tent. Kicking and digging in the snow with my hands, I found the remaining supports and the rusty shell of the old fire-pot. It would do.

It took me longer to set up the tent than it should have. We installed the fire-pot in the pit, moved coals, and soon had a fire to warm it. The Elderling pavilion was more spacious than my little tent had been. As soon as we had moved the bedding, I put Spark inside. We set a pot of snow to melt. Stay with her, I told Per. To Lant, I said, Rummage in the packs. Put together some sort of meal for us.

I went back to where the Fool sat by the fire still. Your tent is up. Shall I guide you inside?

He was staring toward it, a faint smile on his face. I can almost sense the shape of it, for it traps the warmth so well. He heaved a sudden sigh. So many memories that shelter holds for me. Did I tell you that the dragon Tintaglia was the one who commanded the Rain Wild Traders to help me? That tent was given to me, and a lovely robe. But the cloak, the one you call the butterfly cloak? That was something that Prilkop found in Kelsingra. He managed to keep it, wadded small, even when we were slaves. He gave it to me in Clerres. And I gave it to Incalu. My messenger. He fell silent.

I felt a wave of sympathy for him, but I firmed my will. You wont distract me from one tale by dangling another in front of me, Fool. You and Spark went through the portal to Kelsingra. Its claimed by Rain Wilders who call themselves the Dragon Traders now. Queen Malta and King Reyn rule there. Dragons live there, or near there. So. What happened when you emerged?

If I had hoped to push him closer to the truth with what I already knew of Kelsingra, I failed. Malta, he said, and smiled. Possibly the most annoying young female Ive ever encountered. Yet lovely. I named a horse after her. Do you remember?

I do. Nettle said that Burrich was stunned to receive her as a gift. So. You came out of the portal. . .

He folded his lips for a moment, then spoke. It was night. And Spark needed to sit and recover for a time. It was hard for me to let her do that, though I knew it was night, for I sensed no warmth from the surroundings. Im blind, Fitz. But there, suddenly, the city was lit with unfailing light, and I saw the brightly clad folk you call Elderlings. Wed arrived in the midst of some sort of festival. At least, that was what the city remembered for us. And I could see! I do not think you can imagine what that is like, to be deprived for so long of my sight, to become accustomed and accepting that my vision is limited to the difference between light and dark, and then to suddenly see again. Colors and peoples faces, to catch shifting expressions, to see the moving shadows on the walls, the glorious torchlight! Oh, Fitz!

For a time he fell silent, just breathing, as if he were a starving man who had just described a feast. I waited. Well, I knew of course that it was a deception. Or a performance by the memory stone of the city, if you will. That did not lessen its fascination for me. If anything, it sharpened it. I wanted to know more. Strange to say, when Spark began to attempt to speak to the passing people, I became alarmed for her rather than for myself. I got her to her feet, and we walked together through the streets. And it was wonderful, Fitz, to walk arm in arm with her, but not need her vision. Well, almost. There are still parts of the city that are in need of repair, for it is a large place, still far too large for the population it has now. I asked her to be wary, to watch for live folk like ourselves, people who walked through the shadow-population the city showed us. She said she would try, but her voice was vague and I was not sure she could discern what I meant. He paused again, and again his sightless gaze wandered to the Elderling tent. Im cold, he said.

If we go into the tent, all will hear your tale. Out here, we have some small privacy.

It matters little. Spark was with me, and I fancy that when she recovers, she will tell Perseverance all. Theyve become very good friends.

I did not say that she might not recover. Nor did I mention that Per had doubts about that friendship. Instead I helped him to his feet and guided him over the uneven ground to the Elderling tents entrance. It was beautiful in the night, for the light from the little fire inside the tent lit the fabric so that the dragons and serpents gleamed in gold and scarlet and azure. Its beauty was both strong and delicate. My heart soared to see it. The campfire crackled and danced behind us, scenting the cold forest air with pine resin. I could smell the porridge that Lant was cooking. The Fool was beside me and alive, despite his idiocy. My heart lifted in one wolfish instant of unadulterated satisfaction in the present moment.

In the next, shame scourged me. How did I deserve even an instant of peace when my Bee was forever lost? When I was on a mission to a land Id never seen to kill as many Servants as I could find? When a young woman twitched and tattered away with the Skill-sickness in the beautiful tent before me?

You are grinding your teeth, the Fool pointed out quietly.

I always fail the people I love the most.

Say rather that you judge yourself more harshly than anyone else ever has.

We reached the tent door. Duck your head, I suggested.

Let me shed some of this first, he responded. I took from him the heavy fur-and-wool cloak and an amply padded embroidered vest, and then he untied a sash and dropped several layers of skirts to reveal his wool-trousered legs.

I gathered it all up, a substantial armful. How much of a womans shape actually comes from her garments? I wondered as I mastered my load.

More than you would suspect, he responded.

We entered the Elderling tent. It was already capturing the warmth of the tiny fire in the pit. Per had put down a layer of small pine boughs and edged Spark onto them. He sat cross-legged beside the fire, looking both worried and sullen. A moment, I told the Fool, and tucked his female garb into the cloak to transform it into a pallet. Here, I told him, and he sat carefully. He held his hands, one bare and one gloved, out to the fire.

Thats so much better. He sighed.

Lant entered the tent, carrying the bubbling pot of porridge with him. He served out a portion for each of us, even Spark, and it was not too badly scorched. He was learning. He passed out bread and cheese to go with it, and I judged that he was right, that we all needed a more substantial meal. Tomorrow, Ill try for some meat, I offered.

Tomorrow, we should try to move on, the Fool countered.

Only if killing Spark does not matter to you. I will not allow that girl to enter a portal for at least three more days, and even then I doubt she will be ready. If I can Skill to Buckkeep tonight, I will ask Nettle to send someone here, someone strong in the Skill, to take all of you back.

Well, that is not going to happen, the Fool observed sweetly after a stretched moment of silence.

Spark turned her head toward us and then spoke. The dragon? The red dragon?

Shes not here, the Fool replied comfortingly. We escaped her. And when we return to Kelsingra, I will see that we go first to Malta and speak with her. She is a friend, Spark. If I could have gone to her first, we would not have been attacked.

And I think it is time we talked about that attack. Why did you go so swiftly to Kelsingra, why were you attacked, and how did you get Skill all over your hand?

The Fool made a small sound in his throat. I already knew he was dancing around the edges of the truth. He cleared his throat. As you know, my friendship with both Queen Malta and the dragon Tintaglia goes back many years, so I decided

You are friends with a dragon and a queen? Perseverance broke in, astonished.

Its news to me as well, lad. Though I had an inkling of it years ago. But no, Fool, we will not be sidetracked with a story about how all that came about. We accept your peculiar alliances, while reserving the right to demand that tale at a later time. Go on.

The Fool had moved to sit beside Spark. He felt for her hand to hold and when I saw her struggling, I stooped and unwound the butterfly cloak enough that she could get her arm and hand free. Do you think you would like some hot tea? Or something to eat? She looked at me, her gaze still vague, but managed a nod. I ventured a tendril of Skill toward her, fearful of being pulled into the vortex of the portal, but I sensed nothing from her. I suspected she had been battered by the Skill but not shredded. I dared to hope she would recover.

The Fool drew a breath. Well, it was night there, and although the streets were dark and deserted, they did not seem so to me. They seemed wide and lit for a festival, the buildings themselves gleaming with a toadstool light that made the torches seem wild and bright. Yet sometimes I stumbled as we went, over fallen stones that the city did not show me, and once our way was blocked and we had to find a different route.

But you knew where you were going. I allowed silence to take a breath. Fool, had you ever been to Kelsingra before?

He hesitated. Not. . .not in person. Not as myself. But there is a dragon-sense in me now, Fitz. And from it, Ive had dreams. Dreams that are more like memories. His brows drew together and abruptly I allowed myself to see how much he had changed. His skin had the same fine texture youd see on the belly of a tiny lizard. His eyes gleamed gold and yet anxious in the dim light from the fire-pot. I remember things. Flying over the ocean. The musky smell of an elk when it knows it cannot escape and turns to fight. The taste of hot blood over my tongue. Dragons are made of hungers and lusts that are beyond even human imagining. You others will not understand what I speak of, but Fitz will. I dreamed of silvery Skill, filling a well to brimming and flowing over. I dreamed of it rising to the surface of the river like an undulating silver ribbon after an earthquake. But most of all, I dreamed of drinking. Of plunging my muzzle into it nearly to my eyes and sucking it in, in long draughts. He gave a short, breathless sigh as if even speaking of it inflamed his hunger. And I remembered where once I had drunk it. From a well in Kelsingra. So I went there.

He still held Sparks hand but he turned toward me. That was how I knew the dragon blood had Skill in it. All dragons crave it, with every fiber of their beings. And why I believed the blood would carry me through the Skill-portals as it did.

The pot of snow-water finally reached a grudging boil. Perseverance tended it, preparing cups of tea for each of us. For a time, the story was halted as we helped Spark to sit and hold a steaming cup and sip from it. I saw with relief that she was coming back to herself. She presented a thorny problem for me. I needed to be on my way, and the next step of my journey demanded that I go on to Kelsingra, unless the Fool had left it as stirred as a poked hive of bees. Spark sat up, the butterfly cloak draping her shoulders and a second cup of tea warming both her hands.

I meant to go first to Malta, to find her and greet her, and gain her assistance. I dared to hope that Tintaglia would be there and would recall my service to dragons and actually show her appreciation. A thin hope, that, I will admit. Dragons regard us as we might regard gnats. One is much like another, and our deeds matter little. Still. That was my resolution, and Fitz, I truly believed I was clinging to it as I led the way through the streets of Kelsingra. But then I came to a part of the city that was dark. Lifeless. No Elderling memories shimmered there to guide me, and yet I still knew where I was going. I could smell it, Fitz. I could taste it in the back of my throat with every breath I took. And suddenly I could not think of anything else except that brimming Skill-well. And how it would strengthen me and sate me.

His eyes. Was it the firelight that danced and shifted in them, or was it the gold that swirled? I stared at him, wordless.

I didnt drink of it, of course.

Only because he couldnt reach it, Spark said. A very small smile was on her lips, a weary smile like a childs after an exciting day. She did not try to sit up. He dragged me there like a dog on a leash. He knew the way, but I followed him through the dark as he gripped my wrist. We came to an open place. I could see little in the dark, but it seemed a shabby part of the city, not near as grand as the boulevards we had earlier walked. And it smelled rank there. We walked past an immense pile of dung.

Dragon droppings? Per asked in awe, as if that were the most fantastic part of their tale.

I suppose so, she said, and the friends shared the first smile that I had seen pass between them since she had come back through the pillar.

It stank, the Fool confirmed. But the odd part was that it stank in a familiar way. Almost as if I should recall whose droppings those were and walk lightly in her territory.

Ugh, said Lant, softly. I tended to agree with him.

I tried to get the cover off the well.

Which involved a lot of tugging, then kicking and cursing it, Spark confided to Per. He tried not to grin.

True, the Fool admitted reluctantly. Then I smelled Skill, very near me. There was an immense bucket nearby. It had been set down unevenly, and in the corner of it there was Skill. It was little more than a smear, as if someone had wiped it clean but missed a spot. And I could smell it.

I could barely see it, Spark said, sitting up a bit straighter, now a partner in the telling. There was little moon, but it was so silver that it seemed to catch every bit of starlight. It was beautiful and yet terrifying. I wanted to move away from it, but he leaned on the edge of the bucket and reached as far down as he could and managed to get his hand into it.

Just barely, but I touched it. He held up his gloved left hand and smiled as if the gods were pouring blessings upon him. The sweetest agony you can imagine. He turned his face toward me. Fitz. It was like that moment. You know of what I speak. One and complete. I felt I was the music of the world, strong and sweeping. My throat closed and tears ran down my face and I could not move for joy.

And then the dragon came! Spark continued. She was red and even in the darkness of the night she shone red, so that I saw her almost before I heard her. But then she made a sound, like all the horns of Buckkeep blasting, but it was full of fury. She ran toward us. Dragons are not graceful when they run. They are terrifying, but not graceful at all. It was like watching a very angry red cow charge at us! I screamed and seized Lady Amber and dragged him away from the bucket. I could scarcely see where I was running, but run we did. Not that he was happy about it.

Lady Amber? Lant asked, confused.

Spark caught her lip between her teeth. So heno, so she told me I must think of her, guised as we are. She gave Per a look that asked for understanding and said softly, Just as sometimes I am Ash.

Lant opened his mouth but before he could speak, the Fool took up the tale. I could sense the other dragon. The red dragon, I mean. Her roaring was full of threats and name-calling and absolute fury that we had penetrated the city and dared to come to the well of Silver. I could hear other dragons responding to her alarm, and then I heard a mans voice raised in anger. He was urging the dragon on!

Spark shook her head. The dragons were so loud that I didnt even hear the man, and I didnt see him until he suddenly jumped out right in front of us. He had a sword, and he was wearing some kind of harness or armor. I dragged Lady Amber into a building. I just had time to slam a door closed behind us and then we ran in the dark, and we crashed into some stone stairs and we climbed those.

I made a sound of despair. Upstairs? With an enemy in pursuit, you ran where you could be cornered?

Spark looked at me with irritation. Ive never been chased by a man with a sword, let alone a dragon. So, yes, we ran upstairs. It was awful there: Furniture had gone to rot, and it littered the floor. I kept stumbling and I could hear the man shouting as he searched downstairs, for like you he could not believe we would be so stupid as to run up the stairs. Then I found a window, and it looked out on an alley that I judged was too narrow for the dragon.

The Fool took up the tale. So we held hands and jumped out the window with little idea of what was below us. Oh, the terror of that jump for me! It was purest luck that we landed well. I still went to one knee, but Spark already had hold of me and was hauling me along. She flattened us against the wall and we went as silently as we could, staying to the narrow alley for quite a way. Once we came to where the buildings were wakeful, I could get my bearings and then I led the way. We could still hear the dragons trumpeting behind us, but it almost made me feel safer to know they were searching for us back by the well. I judged it was too late to seek an audience with Malta or to reach for Tintaglia, and that the pillar was our best way to escape, though I knew how much Spark dreaded it.

I thought I could run no farther. I had forgotten how heavy skirts can be, let alone a fur-lined cloak. And these boots! He thrust one foot out before us. The toe was as pointed as a sword. Not for running, he said decisively. But just as I slowed and told Spark that we could probably walk for a time, I heard running feet behind us. It was strange. The ghost-festivity was all around us, yet somehow I heard the sound of running footsteps. I felt I had no speed left in me and I shouted at Spark to flee but she would not leave me. Then I heard that sound just as I felt the arrow tug through the shoulder of my cloak. And I found that I could not only run but drag Spark along with me.

He was red, Spark said suddenly. Her voice had gone shaky, a contrast with her earlier pleasure in telling the tale. I looked back. I didnt want to go into the pillar; I was terrified. I looked back to see if he might have mercy if I stayed. But he was like a creature from a nightmare. Tall and narrow and as scarlet as his dragon. And his eyes! When I saw him halt and set another arrow to his bow, I did not hold back. I may have pushed Amber into the pillar.

And here we are, the Fool finished. He looked round at us, smiling blindly.

Indeed. Here we are, I said.

Chapter Thirty-Three Departure | Fool's Quest | Chapter Thirty-Five Kelsingra