An Elderling Welcome
Select your Skill-couriers by these traits. First, let each courier be at least of journeyman status. Select for independence. Both arrogance and stubbornness may be seen as a virtue for this assignment. A highly developed sense of self is an asset for a courier. Vanity is sometimes a helpful marker, for the vain woman or conceited man is ever self-aware. Youth and a hearty constitution are also advantages.
A courier should serve no more than three years, with two years of rest between each year of service. A specific route of pillars should be assigned and the courier should travel the same routes over and over. Thus will his sense of place become well developed. The Skill-user who knows where he is going and recognizes where he is when he arrives is better able to maintain his self intact.
If the courier is strong enough to serve as an escort for the unSkilled, see that he is patient and responsible. Let those he guides always rest for at least three days between each leg of a journey.
I kept my diplomat’s poise and swept him a bow. “We are so grateful to you. I am Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, of the Six Duchies. Lord Lant Fallstar accompanies me, and our serving lad, Perseverance of Withywoods.”
As I introduced them, Lant sheathed his blade and made a far more elegant bow than I could ever have mastered, one that involved much sweeping of his cloak. I smothered a smile as Perseverance made a brave attempt to copy him. I gestured casually at our tumbled baggage. “Perhaps you could arrange for our things to be brought with us? The bear made short work of our picketed horses, and did great damage to our bags.” This was the gamble I was most reluctant to take. I knew that I would have taken an opportunity to search the baggage of any strangers who had mysteriously appeared inside the walls of Buckkeep Castle. The red fellow looked down at us in disapproval bordering on disdain.
“We keep no slaves here. As you have carried them this far, a bit farther will not hurt you.”
“Very well.” I tried to conceal my relief. “And, sir, I do not recall that you favored us with your name?”
A subtle reminder that I would know who he was and would perhaps speak of him to his queen. He had not sheathed his weapon and he did not look daunted by my request. “I am General Rapskal, leader of the Kelsingra Militia. Gather your things. I will take you to my rulers.”
I glanced back at the dragon and his keeper. The Elderling said something to him and then hastened away. The dragon apparently decided we were not interesting. He turned and lumbered off in a different direction. In the distance, I heard a crow caw.
And so we loaded up with our heavy packs once more. I saw no sign of the butterfly cloak and what it concealed, and I took care not to look for it. I had heard Spark speak when we arrived; perhaps that meant she was not in too poor a condition. Realizing one makeshift pack seemed to be missing, I gave a quick glance round, hoping it was under the cloak and not lost to the Skill-passage. Ah, well: Its absence allowed me to be mostly unencumbered and properly aristocratic as we were marched through Kelsingra.
It was a strange experience for me. I raised my Skill-walls and still the city spoke to me of a sunny winter day from its youth. A huddle of human merchants hastened past me, traders from some far city perhaps. They stayed close together and walked swiftly, glancing all about them as they passed us. A youth with a heavy line of scales on his brow and lizard-like wattles along his jaw swept the walkway outside a shop where meat hung on hooks over smoky fires. A girl with a basket on her arm passed us at a trot. Interspersed among these mundane forms, the ghosts of Elderlings strode and laughed and haggled with one another. I wondered if it was my Skill that made them seem so real. A sudden fistfight broke out between two of them and I instinctively moved away from it. “So. You can see them,” Rapskal observed. He did not slow for the ancient altercation, and I did not reply to him.
I wondered how Lant and Per perceived it, and wondered even more if the city whispered to the human guardsmen who walked ahead of, beside, and behind us. With a waft of smell and wind, a green-and-silver dragon passed over us, climbing steadily into the sky. I caught not his thoughts exactly, but his intent. He went to the hunt and for one peculiar moment I longed to hunt with him.
The day was cold and the wind off the unseen river had that wet bite to it that cuts through a man. General Rapskal did not slow his pace for weary travelers with heavy loads. Even so, I had time to notice that the city was sparsely populated. Some streets seemed to have inhabited structures, and the next would show signs of long desertion and disrepair. From my journey on the Skill-road, I knew that anything wrought from Skill-worked stone retained its shape and purpose far longer than any ordinary work of man. The wind might carry debris and scatter dust on the wide streets, but no errant seed had found a crack to take root in, no straggling vine struggled to tear down even the quake-cracked walls. This city had recalled for deserted generations that it was a city, and as if to mock its paltry number of inhabitants it seemed to better remember its distant past as a center of Elderling culture. I took note of all I saw and contrasted it with what Chade and King Dutiful believed of Kelsingra. Unless we were on the edges of a much more populous center, Kelsingra and the Dragon Traders were presenting a far more prosperous face to the world than they truly could muster.
As I had surmised, we were walked to the base of the map-tower and then up those wide steps. The central stairs had been scaled for a dragon’s stride, as were the tall doors at the top. I dreaded such a climb, but they took us to the human-scaled steps to one side. There, at least, folk were coming and going, some in robes as gaudy as the Fool’s tent and the general’s garb, and some in more prosaic leather and wool. A carpenter passed us, followed by his journeyman and three apprentices, all laden with their tools. I took in the grand art that graced the walls and then General Rapskal and his guards were escorting us into a vast and echoing space.
The immense entry hall was cleaner than I recalled it and much emptier. It was warmer as well, and seemed possessed of a sourceless light. The last time I had visited here, the floor had been littered with the fibers and dust of collapsed wooden furniture. The ancient debris had been cleared away, and a score of new desks and tables strove to occupy a space designed for hundreds. Scribes of various mien and garb occupied them, some perhaps diligently adding numbers, others facing a queue of people waiting with various degrees of impatience. I dreaded that we would be assigned to such a queue, but instead we were marched through that hall, drawing all manner of stares, and ushered through a wooden door and into a smaller chamber.
It was still too large a place for our company, but it offered warmth, and as soon as we halted Lant and Per gratefully set down their burdens. At a gesture from their leader, the troops ranged themselves round the wall. General Rapskal came to stand before me. “I will be immediately calling on the king and queen to see if they are willing to give you an audience. I will not deceive you. I am unhappy with your account of yourself and I will advise them to regard you with the just suspicion that intruders to our city deserve. Wait here.”
He turned and I let him go three steps before I halted him with a genial, “And will we be offered wash-water and a place to tidy ourselves before we appear before them? We’ve no wish to insult them with a rough appearance.”
He turned back. A frown creased his brow. He made a swift gesture, and one of his men stepped forward to take hasty counsel with him. It did not take long. “Captain Perling will see to your comfort and supervision while I am gone. Whatever you need, you may ask of him.” And with no more farewell than that, he turned and marched out of the room. The close-fitting footwear he wore made little more than a whisper against the stone. I turned a kindly look on the captain and smiled.
“When the Elderling Selden sojourned with us many years ago, he spoke glowingly of the wonders of your city. I see now that he did not exaggerate. Could we trouble you, good Captain, for warm water and perhaps food and wine to restore ourselves? As you can imagine, our travels since the bear attack have been a journey of privation.”
I was following an axiom of Chade’s. Always behave as if you are the person you wish to be perceived as. I was an emissary from the Six Duchies, a prince of the blood, and I had every right to be welcomed as such. Nonetheless, I had initially feared we would be thrown into a cell or dungeon until the king and queen could judge us. At the very least, I’d expected to be treated harshly, but the captain did not appear to share his general’s trepidation about us. He dispatched a handful of his men for food and drink and wash-water, invited us to be seated, and had his men bring a table and set it before us. The benches he offered us appeared hard and cold, but when we were seated, they warmed and became as soft as any cushioned chair.
That was enough to impress us, but it did not stop there. A vessel decorated with a pattern of leaves and dancers was set on the table before us. Cold water was poured into it, but within moments it steamed gently. We were grateful to warm our chilled faces and hands with it, and to dry them on the soft towels set out for us. The food was less impressive. It was good meat, root vegetables, a cold fowl, and bread, but plainly cooked and served. We were still glad to fill our bellies, and if the wine they offered us was a rather sour vintage, it was still welcome.
Our guards gave us no privacy but we ignored them as we attempted to straighten our garments and smooth our hair. When we had eaten and made ourselves as presentable as we could, we sat on the comfortable benches and waited. And waited. Perseverance voiced the question that filled all our minds. “Do you suppose they are safe?”
I deliberately misunderstood him. “The king and queen of the Elderlings? I am sure they will do their best to see us soon, and extend to us the same welcome we have offered their emissaries to Buckkeep.” I put a kindly smile on my face. “You need not fear them, boy, no matter how strange their guise may seem to you. The Six Duchies has long had cordial relations with all the Traders.” Lant was nodding and the boy seemed to take my meaning. We sat and we waited. Endlessly. I comforted myself that I heard no alarm raised as the slow hours passed. I hoped that the Fool and Spark were using the time well.
I had begun to long to take a nap when finally the door opened again. General Rapskal appeared with a tall Rain Wilder at his side. His hair was tousled from wind and while he was clearly an Elderling, he was not as finely made as General Rapskal. He was older, I decided, though the scaling on his brow did not make it easy to guess his age. He entered the room, looked at me, and then turned to his general. “Swifter would have been better, Rapskal. Later, I will wish to speak to you.”
I rose as he crossed to me and was startled when he extended his hand to me. I offered mine and he took my hand in a Trader’s greeting rather than the warrior’s wrist-clasp I had half-expected.
“You are Prince FitzChivalry Farseer, of the Six Duchies?” he confirmed with me. I nodded gravely. He still had not released my hand. “I beg pardon for the rough welcome you have received. I am Reyn Khuprus.”
I tried not to start. I might call myself a prince, but I had not expected their king to clasp hands with me as an equal. I found my tongue. “I am honored, King Reyn. This is Lord Lant Fallstar, and my serving man, Perseverance of Withywoods.” Both were already on their feet, bowing.
The king finally released my hand and gestured to the door. “I regret my delay in greeting you. My lady, Malta, was called away to deal with unexpected visitors and left me to finish a complicated accounting with one of our ship’s captains. I had given orders I was not to be disturbed until the inventory was complete and somehow your arrival was not seen as an extraordinary event that demanded immediate attention. But, enough explanations for now. Please, accompany me to a more comfortable place. Rapskal, summon someone to prepare chambers for them in the Greeting Hall, and transport their belongings there. No, please, leave your things as they are. I promise they will be delivered safely to your rooms. Accompany me, please.”
The lack of formality was unnerving, and I suddenly and desperately hoped that our arrival would not upset any treaties or pacts that Dutiful and Elliania had been carefully negotiating. As I followed the king, I made a wild reach with my Skill, only to founder in the vast chorus of the city that surrounded me. No. Useless. I’d have to go very cautiously.
He took us back to the great entry hall and then, to our surprise, ushered us out into the early evening. The city was lit as I had never seen any city lit. When Per gasped at it, I knew it was no Skill-trick but actual light emanating from the buildings. They gleamed in dragon colors: gold and blue, scarlet and verdant green, yellow as daisy hearts. Some were patterned with vines of light or stylized waves and swirls while others simply glowed. We needed no torches to make our way down the steps to the street. There I fought my Skill clear of the thronging ghost-Elderlings to see a far sparser population moving in the streets. King Reyn walked briskly, responding with waves or nods to those who greeted him. We attracted stares but he did not permit anyone to detain us or ask questions. At the end of the street, we reached a structure that was humbler than the map-tower but taller and grander by far than Withywoods Manor.
“Our Greeting Hall,” he announced it with a gesture. “We find it a pleasant place to welcome guests. It’s scaled for humans. Smaller doors, lower ceilings. Sometimes I feel rather insignificant in some of the other structures here.” He tipped me a small smile. “A hazard of living alongside dragons, as you may imagine. Please, come with me. There are many comfortable rooms here. And it is what we call a quiet place, meaning that in the upper chambers the voices of Kelsingra do not whisper so loudly.”
He maintained his brisk pace up the steps and weary as I was, I strove to keep up with him. The entrance hall was furnished in what I believed was a Bingtown style. There were clusters of chairs around small elegant tables. The room still looked oddly empty to me until I realized that it was missing a grand hearth with a fire. Despite the high ceilings and wide windows of thick yellow glass, it was still warm inside; I judged this further evidence of Elderling magic at work. We did not pause in this room, but entered a flagged hall and walked along it, our boots ringing while the softly shod feet of the king whispered along. We passed half a dozen ornately carved doors before he opened one and gestured us in.
In the center of the room was a table with an elegant cloth and fine dishes set out upon it. Chairs with carved wooden backs and green cushions awaited us. The art on the walls was foreign to my eyes, but pleasant. Images were suggested—the deep twining greens of a forest or the wide rippled face of a river—but nothing was precisely depicted. A woman had been straightening the silverware on the table, but she turned to greet us as we entered.
Queen Malta of the Dragon Traders. She was legendary for her exotic beauty, and there was no mistaking her for anyone else. Her curling hair was not blond but gold, gold as a gleaming coin. Delicate scaling followed the lines of her brow and emphasized her high cheekbones and decided chin. Like her king, she was dressed in an Elderling robe over loose trousers. The soft little slippers she wore sparkled gold. The fabric of her clothing shimmered from green to gold and back again as she moved to greet us. Caution made me drop to one knee before her, and Lant followed my example. She laughed, and I thought it was at me until I realized that young Perseverance, caught in her beauty, was standing behind us, staring at her with eyes wide and mouth ajar.
She shifted her gaze back to me, and her smile grew even broader. “And that expression honors me more than any presentation of gifts,” she observed, and Perseverance abruptly dropped to his knees. Her eyes twinkled at me as if we shared some splendidly funny secret. She swept me a curtsy. “Prince FitzChivalry, you honor us with this unexpected visit. Yet I feel as if we have met before. I do hope you will forgive General Rapskal. He is sometimes both officious and suspicious.” She transferred her gaze to her husband. “Reyn, dear, as you can see, I’ve added some extra place settings to our table. I was so glad to receive your message. And I think we shall have all our unexpected guests join us at table!” Again her sparkling gaze came back to me. “Prince FitzChivalry, do you believe in coincidence?”
“I have known some that were passing strange,” I told her. Careful, Fitz. I knew I was treading onto unstable ground and would have to be ready to change my tale at a moment’s notice. I turned my smile to Lant and Perseverance, hoping they could read my warning.
“And here is my coincidence,” Queen Malta exclaimed with a smile as a door on the opposite side of the room opened.
Spark, her hair freshly brushed and braided into tidy coils on her head, entered the room. Her cheeks were pink, and Lady Thyme’s elegant black lace overskirt looked better on her than it ever had on that noisome old woman. Behind her came, not the Fool, not Gray, but Amber, and Amber as I had never even imagined her. The butterfly cloak hung gracefully from her narrow shoulders. The Fool’s short hair had been damped and tousled into curls, and a touch of paint reddened his pale lips and cheeks. I knew the sparkling earrings were glass, but the sparkle was as convincing as the Fool’s painted mouth and black-lined eyes. My boyhood friend had vanished and there was absolutely nothing of King Shrewd’s jester. I stared and knew again that jab of betrayal. How could he be so completely this person that I knew not at all? The gulf of uncertainty I felt was painful. I felt both deceived and excluded.
But I had no time to indulge in my feelings. The play had begun and I must find my role. The fingertips of her gloved hand rested on Spark’s shoulder as she was guided into the room. “Oh, my lady, they are here!” Spark exclaimed when she saw us. “Prince FitzChivalry and Lord Lant and even Perseverance. And they appear uninjured.”
At this news, Amber’s fingertips fluttered up to the Fool’s painted mouth in a completely feminine gesture of surprise and relief. He found my shape and exclaimed as Amber, “Oh, Fitz! Lant and Perseverance! You are safe. I am so relieved to know that you have taken no harm! Oh, Queen Malta, thank you, thank you for finding them and rescuing them. I am forever in your debt.”
“Indeed you are,” Malta said quietly. Had Amber forgotten she was dealing with a woman born a Bingtown Trader, one to whom every transaction in life was a bargain or an agreement or a deal? Then Malta added, “As I and much of Bingtown remain in yours. For I believe that a debt can be as mutual as a promise.”
There was something of Chade in Lant after all. He had maintained his aplomb and did not gape. Perseverance struggled, coughing heavily and using it as an excuse to bow his head. I desperately longed to know what tale the Fool had already told Malta. I had said we were emissaries from the Six Duchies and had come down from the Mountains. Had we contradicted each other, and if so, could we find a way to mend it convincingly?
King Reyn looked puzzled and was not trying to cover his confusion. Malta gave him a significant look and I knew that she would be the one to handle us. “Please, come to the table. Let us eat and drink together, and we will see what we can do to help you on your way.”
Reyn seated his queen and took his chair at the head of the table. We were ranged down one side of the table. A servant, very human in appearance, arrived to escort Spark and Perseverance away to refreshments of their own. Spark went as if fully comfortable with this while Per gave me several backward glances even as I nodded to him to go. King Reyn smiled round at us as the door closed behind them and exclaimed, “I am ravenous! I hope you will not find it strange if we stand on little ceremony here.” He looked at Amber and smiled as he said, “Even after years of it, king and queen sit a bit oddly with us.” With a glance at Lant and me, he added, “After years of the Satrapy extorting money from the Bingtown Traders, we who were raised as Traders still wonder why anyone would think we preferred a monarchy. But it’s a convenient way for the outside world to see us, as I’m sure you both understand.”
My thoughts scrabbled. Kettricken had said something of it to me once. Just as she had been trained to see herself as Sacrifice for her people, but outsiders had seen her as a Mountain princess, so Malta and Reyn, while known as the King and Queen of the Rain Wilds, were actually more the chief negotiators for a consortium of merchant traders. I nodded politely and Lant smiled. The “king” was serving himself from a dish of food, which he then passed on to his “queen.” As the dish moved down the table, we each took a portion and passed it on. Dish followed dish, and while it was of a better quality than what we had been offered earlier, it still did not surpass what I’d expect on the Buckkeep table. Lant rose in my estimation as I saw him lean toward Amber, identify the dish for her, and then allot her a serving if she desired it.
Reyn smiled round at all of us. “Let us simply eat before we talk, shall we?”
“Of course!” Amber accepted for all of us. “Bargaining and digestion are not the best companions, as well we must know.”
“Then you come to bargain?” Reyn smiled at her. “And I thought Prince FitzChivalry and his party were emissaries from the Six Duchies.”
“Emissaries in search of a particular bargain. But let us say no more of that now, but only eat and drink together, as old friends and new.” Amber walked her fingertips on the table, found and lifted a glass filled with a golden wine. “To friends well met!” she offered, and all drank to her toast. When she set down her glass, she added, “I had so hoped to see Phron while I was here. He is well, I trust?”
Malta stopped chewing the bit of meat she had taken. Amber smiled innocently but I saw his dart had struck true and wondered why he had launched it. After a moment, Rey said quietly, “Phron’s health remains delicate. Perhaps he will join us briefly after the meal, if he feels up to meeting guests.”
“I am grieved to hear that,” Amber replied softly. “The last word I had of him was years ago. At that time, I believe he had begun to thrive.”
“Years ago,” Malta said softly. Sometimes, when a bell is struck, another vibrates in sympathy. The parent in me echoed the concealed pain in her voice, and I wanted Amber to stop pressing her. Something was seriously wrong with her child. I would never make it a bargaining point and I was not sure what Amber was leading up to.
Reyn spoke, his tone a bit acerbic. “I’m surprised you had any tidings of Phron.”
Amber shrugged lightly. Her fingers danced delicately over her food, and then, almost as if she were sighted, she cut a bite from a slice of preserved fruit on her plate. I did not recognize the fruit and took a cautious bite of mine as she spoke. “It was years ago. You know how such gossip travels, from friend to friend. You recall Jek, my shipmate on the Paragon?”
Oh, neatly done. I now guessed the true source of her news. Jek was one of the few names I knew from Chade’s network of spies and information gatherers. I suspected that while news of this Phron was years old, the Fool had rummaged it out from Chade’s scrolls. No: He was blind. It would have had to come from Spark. Or Ash. So the youngster was deeply, deeply the Fool’s now, enough to purloin not only dragon blood but also precious information for him. I was not sure if I was glad that he had such a loyal person at his command or resentful that such a useful resource had been lured away from Chade.
Malta’s brow creased briefly, making the scaling wink. “I do not recall her. Perhaps we did not meet.”
“She handled much of my business here after I had to leave Bingtown.”
“Oh, yes. I remember her now. The repayments of the loan were made through her.”
“We haven’t forgotten,” Reyn said. “Ready money was very scarce at the end of our war with Chalced. When you loaned out much of your share of Igrot’s treasure, it helped many in Bingtown to rebuild. So many of our heritage merchants suffered the loss of their shops and stock. And it helped many of the Tattooed to make a fresh start here.”
“And it was financially wise of you,” Malta added, reminding all that Amber had undoubtedly shown a profit on her kindness. “We were years paying it back to you.”
And now I knew the source of Lord Golden’s stream of income in his wild gambling days at Buckkeep court. What he had invested wisely in Bingtown, he spent with a shocking profligacy in Buckkeep Town. Because he had known then that he was going to die and saw no point in saving any of it. Oh, this was good. So many bits and pieces of the Fool’s lives were being handed to me. I smiled at Amber across the table and somehow she knew, for she showed me her teeth. “It helped me through a difficult time,” Amber responded congenially.
Malta spoke delicately. “I cannot help but notice that life has put you through many changes since last I saw you. I mourn that you have lost your sight. And I had not realized that you had had enough contact with dragons to undergo a change.”
There was a baggage train of questions packed into that comment. I waited. “I promised you my story when I came to you, and you have waited so patiently. Let us finish eating, then, and I shall tell it.” Ah, so I was not the only one he used his delaying tactic upon.
The rest of the meal passed uneventfully. Lant said little except to thank them for the meal and to compliment the food, and I volunteered little more than that. Often I felt Reyn’s eyes upon me, measuring me, and I strove to behave as a Farseer prince should, even as I wondered what sort of a tale Amber had spun around us.
Our meal over, a servant cleared the table and set out brandy and glasses for us, with a selection of spicy teas offered as well. The brandy was Sandsedge, from the Six Duchies, and I wondered if that was intended as a compliment. I accepted a small glass with pleasure and sincere thanks. Reyn had just opened his mouth to reply when the door opened and a frail old Elderling came in. He moved slowly, a servant at his side and a cane in his hand. He breathed audibly through his nose, and took short cautious steps as he made his way toward the table. His hair was as golden as Malta’s and his scaling as blue as Reyn’s. Even so, I was startled when Malta said brightly, “And here is Phron, come to wish us good night.”
Amber could not see but perhaps she could hear Phron’s breathing and his hesitant step as he made his way to the table and then eased himself into a chair. The servant stooped, to ask if he would prefer brandy or tea. “Tea. Please.” A gasp punctuated the man’s request, for so his voice betrayed him to be. I looked at him afresh. His eyes were an intense blue, and the scaling of blue and silver that marked him was both intricate and fanciful. It was no chance growth, like a calico kitten’s fur. The patterns on his face and bared arms were as deliberate and artful as a tattoo. But the purplish tint to his lips that puffed in and out as he breathed and the dark circles under his eyes were not part of that coloring. Phron. Malta’s son. Not an old man, but a young one made old by illness.
Malta had gone to her son’s side. She extended a hand to indicate us. “Prince FitzChivalry, Lord Lant, Lady Amber, I am pleased to present our son, Ephron Khuprus.”
I stood, took two steps and bowed to him. The closer I got to him, the louder my Wit-sense of him rang. He extended his hand to me, and so I offered mine. He surprised me when he clasped my wrist in the Six Duchies style of warrior greeting warrior, but I returned it. The moment my hand closed against his skin, my awareness of him doubled in a way I had never experienced. It was not comfortable for me and yet it did not seem he was even aware of it. Dragon and boy, boy and dragon rang against my senses in a way I could scarcely stand. And with that doubled sense of him, an even deeper sense of wrong, wrong, wrong within his body. He was weak and breathless, starved and weary from the wrongness. It jangled against my senses unbearably, and thoughtlessly I reached out and touched the error.
The boy gasped. His head sagged forward on his chest and for a moment he was totally still. We remained as we were, our wrists locked in each other’s grip. I reached to catch his shoulder with my free hand as he sagged toward me. I could not let go as the Skill poured through me and into him.
In a long-ago spring in the Mountains, Nighteyes and I had once witnessed an ice dam in a creek giving way. In a thundering roar, the pent-up water had burst through, and in a moment the white of the snowy creek bed had become a brown rush of water, sticks, and even logs tumbling as the flood gushed down the hillside. The Skill-tide that I had sensed all around me, that had surrounded me and prevented me from reaching Nettle, suddenly found an open channel. It coursed through me, powerful and pure and laden with pleasure in making things perfect. The Skill-joy that was as much sensory as it was intellectual flooded my mind and my body. The boy made a strangled sound and perhaps I echoed that muffled cry.
“Phron!” Malta cried out in alarm and in an instant Reyn was on his feet.
I shivered as if a chill wind swept through me while Phron’s body aligned itself to my vision. Somewhere a vast distance away, the queen dragon Tintaglia was startled. Was not that human hers to shape? Then she dismissed me, as dragons dismiss humans, and I sensed her no more. But Phron lifted his head and all but shouted his question. “What was that? It felt amazing!” In sudden astonishment, he added, “I can breathe! It doesn’t hurt to breathe, I don’t have to work at it! I can breathe and talk!” Suddenly he released his grip on me and took the four strides that carried him to his father’s worried embrace.
For myself, I staggered sideways. Lant shocked me when he leapt to my side and caught my elbow to steady me. “What just happened?” he breathed, and all I could do was shake my head.
Then Phron broke free of Reyn and turned back to me. He took a deep lungful of air in through his mouth and suddenly gave a shout of pure relief. “Was that you?” he demanded of me. “I think it was you, but it felt like what Tintaglia sometimes does, when she comes. She has not been here in, what, five years? When last she put me right, yes, five years.” He opened and flexed the long digits of his hands, and I guessed that whatever she had done then had restored his hands to him. Malta was weeping wordlessly, tears streaming down her cheeks. Phron turned to her, wrapped his arms around her, and tried to lift her off her feet in a hug. He failed. Months of breathlessness had enfeebled him, but he was smiling now. “I’m better, Mother. Better than I’ve been in years! Don’t weep! Is there food left? Food I can chew and swallow now without gasping? Anything but soup! Anything I can bite and chew. Or crunch! Is there anything crunchy?”
Malta broke free of his hug, laughing wildly. “I’ll fetch it for you!” And that fine and queenly Elderling was suddenly just a boy’s mother as she darted away from him toward the door. As she went, she was already calling for meat and fresh bread toasted hot and other words that were lost to us in the closing of the door.
I turned back to find Reyn standing behind me, grinning at his son. He looked to me. “I don’t know why you came here. I don’t know what you did, even though I felt an echo of it. It felt like Tintaglia, she who touched me and made me an Elderling. How did you do it? I thought only a dragon could shape us like that.”
“He’s a man of many talents,” Amber said. She stood, pushing back from her chair. Her fingertips trailed the table’s edge as she came toward us, and when she reached us, Lant surrendered his place at my side to her. She took my arm in a way that was too familiar. Molly. Molly had always taken my arm like that, when we walked in the market and she wished my attention, or sometimes when she just wanted to touch me. It was different from how the Fool would sometimes link arms with me back in the days when we had walked side by side. He was Amber in that moment, and his hand rested possessively on my upper arm. I forced myself to stand still and accept it. Like a horse accepting a strange rider, I thought to myself, and reined in my impulse to break free of the touch. I did not know what game he played, and dared not spoil it for him. Very softly I said, “A Skill-healing. And one that was beyond my control. I need to sit down now.”
“Of course,” she said, and Lant was already pulling out one of the unclaimed chairs for me. I sat and wondered what had just happened.
“You look as if you could use this,” I heard Reyn say. He had my glass and was tipping a generous measure of brandy into it. He set it before me and I managed to thank him. I felt as if I’d fallen into a deep and swift current, been tumbled in it, and then pulled back to shore. It surged still, unbearably close to me, coursing through me with a pleasure beyond any appetite I’d ever known. Pull me back, Verity had once said to me. But there was no one near to help me. I was not sure if I wanted help or to let go. The Skill-current beckoned, seething with power and pleasure. Why would I shut that out? I built my wall as if I were pushing a wall of mud against a flood. Did I really want to close myself in? The Fool, or Amber, was standing behind me. I felt hands settle on my shoulders and steady me. I drew a breath and my walls held. I stepped back from temptation.
Malta came back into the room, carrying some flat yellow cakes on a platter. Two servants came behind her, bringing a roasted bird and a heaped mound of the dark-orange roots we’d had at dinner. The boy’s eyes lit to see them, and his father laughed out loud as he hastily seated himself. He did not wait, but took one of the yellow cakes and bit into it. It was crisp to the point of breaking, and he devoured it with unabashed pleasure as a beaming servant forked a thick slab of meat onto a plate for him and mounded vegetables beside it. He spoke to me around and through a mouthful. “I haven’t been able to eat easily for more than a year. My throat had grown so tight and small inside. It burned when I swallowed. Soup. I could get down thin soup. That was all.”
“You had . . . they would have been right. In a dragon. They grew as if . . .” I felt very awkward saying it. I knew I’d seen them earlier, in the green dragon’s open maw. “Sacs,” I said. “For spitting poison, I think. Growing in your throat.”
“What did you do? And how?” Malta was regarding me with wonder. Wonder touched with fear.
Amber spoke over my head. “Prince FitzChivalry has the hereditary magic of the Farseer line. Of the royal blood. He can heal.”
“Sometimes!” I added hastily. “Only sometimes.” I found the brandy. My hand was steady enough to pick it up, and I had some.
“I think,” Reyn spoke slowly, “that I would like for all of us to sit down. I’d like to hear Lady Amber’s tale. To know why you came here. And how.”
She squeezed my shoulders, cautioning me to silence, just as Molly would have if she’d thought I was about to offer too much coin for a market purchase. “It would greatly please me to tell you all,” she said, and I was just as glad to let her. I felt relief when she let go of me and we were seated round the table again. Lant had taken his seat and remained remarkably quiet.
A tale the Fool told him, in the voice of a steady and practical woman. She and I were old friends, she began.
“That I guessed,” Malta said knowingly. “When first I saw him, I felt as if I already knew him.” She smiled at me as if we shared a jest. I smiled back, without understanding.
Amber’s tale skirted and leapt and wove through the truth. She’d come to Buckkeep, and there had a lovely time with all the beautiful money that Jek had sent to her from Bingtown. Too lovely a time, with too much fine brandy (and here she paused to take a sip of golden Sandsedge) and too many games of chance where neither cards nor dice nor scattering pins favored her. She’d lost her fortune and decided to return to her homeland to reunite with her family and to visit friends. Instead she’d encountered old enemies. They’d taken over her ancestral home, and injured her kin. They’d captured her, and tormented her. Blinding her had neither been the least nor the worst of what they did to her. When she could, she escaped them. And fled back to me. To one who could avenge her, and help her free those still kept captive. To FitzChivalry Farseer, a man as adept at killing as he was at healing.
The tale had enraptured all of them, even Lant. It came to me that this contorted version of the truth of the Fool’s tale was more than he’d heard of it before. Phron was now looking at me with a youngster’s wonder. Reyn sat, elbow on the table, his chin in his hand, and his fingers splayed across his mouth. I could not decide what he was thinking, but Malta was nodding to Amber’s words, and accepted her claims for me with no argument. I controlled my face but ruefully wished she were less extravagant in her praise of me.
So I was dismayed by Malta’s words when the Fool paused to sip brandy. “There are other children,” she said. She looked directly at me. “Not many. The children born here in Kelsingra are few, and even fewer survive. If you could do for them what you did for Phron, you could ask of us almost any—”
“Malta, he is a guest—” her husband began, in rebuke, but she interrupted with, “And they are children who suffer daily, and their parents with them. How can I not ask for it?”
“I understand.” I said it swiftly, before the Fool could speak. “But I cannot make any promises. What Amber called a healing is more of . . . an adjustment. It may not be permanent. I may not be able to help any of the other children.”
“We need—” Amber began but I cut her off recklessly.
“We need nothing in return for helping children. The lives of children are not bargaining chips.”
“We need,” Amber resumed calmly, “not speak of any bargain or desire of ours until after FitzChivalry has done what he can for the children.” She turned her blinded visage toward me. “That goes without saying.”
And yet by saying it, she had reminded them that we could have held that back. I tried to watch Malta’s face without seeming to stare. She was nodding slowly and then exchanged an unreadable glance with Reyn. Phron was still eating. Without thinking, I cautioned him, “Slow down. You will have to give your body time to adapt to the change in your diet.”
He stopped, fork halfway to his mouth. “I have been so hungry for so long,” he explained.
I nodded. “But no matter how long you’ve been hungry, your stomach will only hold so much.”
“Trust me. That’s very true,” Amber confirmed for him ruefully.
I glanced at his parents, suddenly aware that I had spoken to their son as if he were mine. Malta had a look of pleading desperation. Reyn was looking down, as if ashamed to hope.
I made the offer reluctantly. Had not I known what it was to have a child with a baffling difficulty? Had not I felt the pain of a parent who would pay any price to make my child’s life better? “I don’t know that I can help all of them. Or any of them. But I am willing to try,” I said and attempted to keep my trepidation from my voice. It was not just that I was uncertain. It was the disquieting knowledge that my Skill-magic was moving strangely in me. Was it the Skill itself, was it stronger or more focused here in Kelsingra? Or was it me? Was the boundary between me and the Skill-current eroding? I had touched Phron, a boy I’d never met before, and healed him as effortlessly as if I were Thick. No. Not healed, I reminded myself. Adjusted him. With no previous knowledge of how a young Elderling’s body should be. I suddenly wished I had not agreed to try. What if my next effort did not correct but caused an error in a child’s body? What would have become of us if Phron had died choking and gasping at my feet?
“I have not yet finished my tale,” Amber interjected softly. I was startled to the point of staring. The Fool never volunteered information about himself. Was Amber so different a person?
“There is more?” Malta was incredulous.
“It’s quickly told, and perhaps a brief telling is best for you as well as FitzChivalry. The people who held me captive, tormented me, and stole my eyesight knew that I would seek help from my old friend.” She paused, and my belly turned over in me. He wouldn’t. She did. “They lured FitzChivalry away from his home. And then they attacked it with hired Chalcedean troops, led by a man whose name perhaps you may know. He called himself Duke Ellik.”
I actually heard Reyn’s teeth grind. Malta had gone pale under her scarlet scaling. The crimson outline of every scale against her white face was beautiful and frightening. Was Amber unaware of the response she had woken? She spoke on.
“They shattered his doors, burned his barns and stables, killed and raped and looted. And they stole his daughter. A small child of nine years. Her older cousin they took as well. Lady Shine was able to escape, not without harm, but alive. But little Bee, Lord FitzChivalry’s daughter, a child beyond precious to both of us, they destroyed.”
So bald a telling of that tale. I should have been inured to that pain. I should have been past the point where it made me want to rage, to weep, and to strike out at all around me. I found I was gripping the edge of the table, looking down at the edge of it and trying to cling to control as a storm raged within and around me.
“Destroyed.” Queen Malta spoke the word faintly.
“Gone forever,” Amber confirmed.
Reyn refilled my small blue glass with golden Sandsedge brandy and nudged it carefully toward me. It wouldn’t help but I tried to appreciate the gesture. I should not drink it. I’d already had too much, too quickly. I looked into it, swirled it, and my thoughts went to Verity. How often had I seen him make that small gesture? What had he seen there?
Nothing, Fitz. Nothing at all. Drink up your false courage and move forward. It’s the only direction a man can move in.
I lifted my eyes, listening. Imagination. I picked up my brandy and drank it down.
“Children are not bargaining chips,” Reyn confirmed. He looked to his queen. “Yet I am unable to imagine a way to let you understand the depth of our gratitude.” He paused and added uncomfortably, “Or the wild hope I feel for the other children. I know it must seem greedy of us, but if you will, please, let me summon the parents and speak with them tonight. To tell them that possibly you can help. Perhaps, tomorrow . . .” He let the request trail away.
I was shocked at the surge of anticipation I felt. “I can make no promises,” I cautioned him.
Amber spoke suddenly. “He will need to rest well before he attempts any more. These healings tax him in a way that is difficult to explain.” She paused and then dared to caution Reyn, “And when you speak to the parents, you must be honest, sir. Tell them there is risk as well, and not just that Prince FitzChivalry may not be able to help. Sometimes his healings take a heavy toll on the one he helps. I speak with a personal knowledge of that! Bid them consider well the gamble.”
“There is also General Rapskal. This will not please him.” Malta spoke anxiously.
“Few things do,” Reyn said with a laugh that had no humor in it. “And some few of the dragons may be interested. There are not many here right now. Most are gone to warmer lands, for a season, or a year, or a decade. They do not count time as we do.”
“They do not think of children who may need to be shaped or guided in their changes.” Malta spoke with an edge of bitterness. “Those who have neglected their young Elderlings will express perfunctory regret, of course.”
I was not grasping the fullness of what I was hearing, but the offer of rest and time alone tempted me beyond words. I think my weariness must have shown in my face, for Malta added, “I believe that comfortable chambers are ready for you and your young servingfolk. I will do all I may to assure you a night of rest and sweet dreams.” Her glance met her husband’s, and he nodded and added slowly, “I promise I will caution the parents not to set their hopes too high. And give them a night to consider well their choice: To have you try. Or not.”
Amber nodded to that for me. “Prince FitzChivalry does not have unlimited abilities. He has not been able to restore my sight, but much else that was wrong with me, he set right.”
Malta nodded. “It grieved me when first I saw that you had lost your vision and been subjected to ill use. You have told us what befell you, but not why you have taken on some semblance to an Elderling. I know that you and Tintaglia had some doings, some years ago. I assume she is the one who began your changes?”
I wished Amber could have seen Malta’s expression. She dreaded the wrong answer, but Amber danced all around a question as lightly as the Fool could. “We did. It was many years ago, and she was more prone, then, to honor her debts to mere people. She persuaded the good folk of Trehaug to supply me for an expedition.”
“I recall something of that,” Malta replied. And then, as if both relieved by Amber’s tale and recalling her duties as a hostess, she added, “If you will excuse me, there is a small comfort I wish to send you.”
“And I am off also,” Reyn added. “Please, for now, be comfortable here.”
They left the room together, Malta’s hand on Reyn’s arm. Phron sauntered after them, the remainder of the cakes in his custody. At the door he paused, turned, and swept us a surprisingly gracious bow for a young man clutching a plate. I had to smile, and then the door closed behind them.
For a time, the three of us sat in silence, each occupied with our own set of worries. Amber asked softly, “Whyever did you do it, Fitz? Why attempt such a healing on your own and for a boy you scarcely know?” She leaned back in her chair and patted her own cheeks. “When I grasped what was happening, I was terrified.”
“He took my hand and it just . . . happened. We connected in the Skill and I do not think I could have refrained from correcting his body.”
“That sounds dangerous,” Lant observed, and Amber choked on a laugh.
Then a servant entered bearing a tray with a large silver pot on it surrounded by tiny white cups, followed by Spark and Per. The servant poured each of us a tiny cup of dark and steaming liquid. “A gift from the king and queen. Sweetsleep tea.” She wished us a good night and departed.
I lifted a cup and sniffed it. I passed it to Amber. “Are you familiar with this? It’s like a very dark tea, but thicker.”
She smelled it, and then took a delicate sip. “I’ve had this before, in Bingtown. Sweetsleep. It’s supposed to make one sleep well with very pleasant dreams. It allows you to forget your cares. It’s very expensive. It’s quite a compliment to be served this.”
“It is,” Perseverance confirmed heartily. “The serving woman who brought us here was astonished at being told to prepare it for you. It came all the way from Jamaillia, a gift to the king and queen from the Satrap himself! ‘Like drinking gold to have this tea,’ she said.”
“I would welcome a deep sleep,” Lant said quietly. “With pleasant dreams, for a change.” He took up his cup and sipped from it. We watched him. He licked his lips. “It’s nice. An edge of bitter and then it tastes sweet.”
Amber was taking slow sips of hers. She paused as if she could see me watching her. “It’s safe,” she said quietly. “Traders will drive a hard bargain with you, but poison is not part of their ethic. Nor do I think Reyn and Malta would do harm to the man who saved their son. Or to the man they hope will save the children of Kelsingra.”
Spark had been watching Amber. Without hesitation, she raised her cup to her lips and tasted it. “I like it,” she proclaimed and took another sip.
“You’re not drinking it, are you?” Amber smiled at me across the table. There was a bit of a challenge in that smile.
“I’m a cautious fellow,” I reminded her.
“Fitz. There’s a time for caution. And a time to try something new. Something that might let you have a good night’s sleep.” I do not know how she sensed my hesitation. “Hospitality,” she said quietly. “Do not turn away a very gracious gift. I promise you, it’s no more than a restful tea. Less harmful than carryme. Courtesy demands we enjoy it.” She lifted her tiny cup and sipped from it.
Perseverance looked to me. I shrugged and tasted mine. It was pleasant, the bitter followed by the sweet. The boy watched me and then took his down in a series of slow sips. “Fitz, drink it,” Amber said in the Fool’s voice. “Trust my judgment in this. It will not harm you and may do you much good.”
And so I did. By the time two different serving girls came to guide us to our rooms, I felt a pleasant lassitude. There was no heavy sensation of being drugged, simply the drowsy feeling that I would be easily able to fall asleep.
The serving girls were not Elderlings, but were clad in bright garments similar to those Malta had been wearing. One was all in red, the other in blue. Amber took my arm and I guided her as we followed the girl in blue. Lant came with us. Spark and Perseverance came behind us and I heard Spark take up a conversation with the girl in red. Evidently they had all dined together earlier. “I will move across the river tomorrow,” one girl said to Spark. It seemed the continuance of an earlier conversation. “I decided tonight. The whispering has grown too loud for me to bear. I had hoped, though it seems silly to admit it now, to someday become favored of a dragon and be Changed.” She shook her head. “But I cannot endure it. All day, in the streets, the walls mutter to me. And at night, even in the quiet houses, my dreams are not my own. I will try my luck across the river, although I will miss the lights of the city and the warmth and comfort of these buildings. All winter, the workers there have been clearing land. In spring we will dig and plant. And perhaps this time the crops will prosper.”
The girl in red paused at a door and looked at Lant. “My mistress says she hopes you will find the chambers she ordered for you pleasing, but if you do not, you have but to ring a bell, and someone will come to make it comfortable for you. Oh. And to ring the bell, you need only touch the image of a flower beside the door.” She opened the door and bowed to Lant. “For Lord Lant, this room has been prepared. Perseverance has told us which pack to bring here. You will find the couch adapts to your body. The jug with the figures of fish on it will keep your wash-water warm. A bath will be filling for you. I tell you these things so that you may not be alarmed by them.” Lant listened gravely, nodded to her with great equanimity, bade us good night. and entered. I judged he would soon be asleep.
The girl glanced back at us with a smile. “Your quarters are at the end of the corridor.” She led us on. I was definitely feeling the effects of the soporific. The weariness I had been so long denying was rising in me like an inevitable tide. Yet it was not the aching tiredness that was too familiar to me but only the gentle looming of easy sleep. She stopped at a door that seemed a trifle grander than the one that had led to Lant’s room. The door was neither wood nor stone, but an unfamiliar substance carved in twists and twinings like the bark of a contorted tree. It reminded me of ivory, in a darker tone. “Your chambers,” she said quietly. “When you wake tomorrow, touch the tree image by the door and food will be brought for you.”
“Thank you,” I said. She touched the door and it swung silently open. I entered to find myself in a sitting room. My makeshift pack looked sadly out of place on the delicately carved table in the center of the room. The floor was finished with hundreds of tiny triangular tiles, and the walls were painted to resemble trees. The room smelled like a summer forest. Beyond the sitting room, I saw a chamber with a large bed and beyond that a sight I could scarcely believe. I crossed the bedchamber and stared into the alcove beyond it. A pool twice the size of the bed was filling with steaming water scented with forest herbs. A table beside it was stacked with thick towels, squat pots of soap and ewers of oils, and several Elderling robes in bright colors.
I heard the door shut behind me. I walked toward the water, shedding clothes as I went. I sat down on the floor like a child to pull off my boots, then stood to drop my trousers. I did not hesitate at the water’s edge. The lip of the pond slanted down and I waded into it and then sat down in the deepest end so that the water lapped my unshaven chin. Slowly the warmth penetrated my flesh, and I felt my muscles relax. I leaned back as the water grew deeper until it lifted me and I hung in it. Slowly I cupped water and rubbed my face, and then ducked, rubbing salty sweat from my hair and head. When I came up the Fool was standing at the edge of the pool.
“How deep is it?”
“Not over your head.” I ducked again and came up. Water streamed from my hair and down my back. Had hot water ever felt so good? It was hard to think of anything besides the sensation. “Why didn’t you go to your room?”
“This is my room. Spark and I were here earlier. My things are already in the closet. When the servants asked Perseverance and Spark who you were, they said you were my protector. So they did not separate us.”
“Oh.” I leaned back in the water and scrubbed at my face again. I wondered how unkempt I had appeared to the King and the Queen of the Elderlings. I hadn’t given it a thought earlier. And I realized I cared little what they thought of me. I pushed wet hair from my face, stood up, and shook water from my head. I was suddenly sleepy and the wide bed beckoned. “I’m going to bed. If you go in the pool, don’t drown.”
I walked to the shallow end and waded out. I took a towel from the stack but barely found the will to dry myself before walking toward the bed.
“Sleep well, Fitz,” the Fool said. And he was the Fool again.
“That tea. I can sleep, Fool. I can let go of everything. Stop worrying. Worrying doesn’t solve anything. I know that. In one way I know it but in another it seems wrong. It seems as if I don’t think about all the things that hurt, all the things I’ve done wrong, then I don’t really care. Tormenting myself with Bee’s death won’t bring her back. Why do I have to remember it all the time?” The bed was large and flat. There were no pillows and no coverings. I sat down on it, my towel around my shoulders. The surface was firm and slightly warm. Very slowly, it gave to the weight of my body. I lay back on it. “Molly is dead. Bee is gone. I can’t feel Nighteyes anymore. I should just accept those things and go on. Maybe. Or maybe you’re right. I should go kill all of the Servants. I’ve nothing better to do with what is left of my life. Why not do that?” I closed my eyes. When I spoke, I could hear the slurring of my words. I groped after what I was trying to say. “I’m like you now. I’ve gone beyond the end of my life, to a place where I never expected to be.”
His voice was kind. “Don’t fight it, Fitz. Don’t question it. For one night, let it all go.”
I did. I tumbled into sleep.