Heroes and Thieves
Scrying is a little-respected magic and yet I have found it a small and useful talent to have. Some use a ball of polished crystal. That is well and good, for those who can afford such things. But for a boy born to a hardscrabble patch of dirt scarcely worth the name of farm, a milk pail with some water in the bottom to reflect the blue sky above works well enough. It was my hobby when I was a smallish boy. In a life that consisted largely of chores and boredom, staring into a milk pail and marveling at what I saw was a fascinating pastime. My stepfather thought me daft when he caught me at it. I was astonished to find that neither he nor my mother found anything fascinating in the water, while I watched a boy much like me but younger growing up in a castle.
I woke. I lay in the darkness. I could not remember that I had dreamed, yet words rang in my ears still. Verity says you gave up hope too easily. That you always did.
Bee’s voice? If that message was the pleasant dream the Elderling tea had promised me, it was a sad misrepresentation of what the tea actually did. I stared up at a ceiling painted a dark gray. Stars had been painstakingly dotted over the entire surface. As I stared at them through slitted eyes, the deep of night became darkest blue. I blinked. I was staring up at the sky. I was warm, cradled in softness. I smelled forest. Someone slept beside me.
I lifted my head and stared. The Fool. Only the Fool. In sleep, with his strange, blinded eyes hidden, I could see the lines of Lord Golden’s face with the coloring of my boyhood friend. But as the ceiling above me continued in its mimicry of dawn, I began to see the fine scaling along his brows. I wondered if it would progress until he looked fully like an Elderling or if the dragon’s blood had finished with him. He wore an Elderling robe of white or pale silver; it was hard to tell in the dawn light. His bared hand clasped his gloved hand to his breast as if to keep watch over it while he slept. His head was bowed over his hands, and he frowned in his sleep. His knees were drawn up to his chest, as if to protect himself from a kick. Men who have been tortured are slow to sleep carelessly. His curled body was too close to how I had found him, dead and frozen in the Pale Woman’s icy halls. I stared at him until I was sure I could see him breathing. Foolish. He was fine.
I rolled cautiously away from him and sat up on the edge of the bed. I stood up slowly. I felt well rested, with no aching muscles. I was neither too warm nor too cold. I looked around the room. The magic of the Elderlings was all round me. How easily I had accepted it last night. How swiftly I had dropped my guard. “Sweetsleep,” I muttered to myself.
I rose and left the Fool sleeping and went to the smaller room. The pool had drained itself, and my discarded clothing was where I had dropped it. One boot stood and the other sprawled on its side. I moved slowly, gathering my things and trying to clear my brain at the same time. I felt peculiar. One at a time, I gathered my worries with my clothing. Even drunk, I’d never behaved as selfishly as I had last night. It bothered me. I found fresher clothes in my pack, donned them, and tidied my discarded clothing. The water in the ewer was warm. There was a looking-glass and, beside it, brushes. I persuaded my hair into a warrior’s tail and decided that it would be easier to have a beard than to shave. I turned my face from side to side, studying the gray in my whiskers. So be it.
“I’m right here. Up and dressed.”
“I . . . dreamed.”
“You said the tea would do that, give pleasant dreams.”
I turned to find him sitting up on the bed. The Elderling gown was silvery. It reminded me of very fine chain mail. Or fish scales.
“I dreamed of both of us here. Walking in this city, laughing and talking. But so long ago. In a time of dragons, when the city was fine and unshattered.” He paused, his mouth slightly ajar. He said softly, “The air smelled like flowers. It was like that first time. In the Mountains at the market-circle.”
“We are deep in an Elderling city. The buildings are impregnated with Skill and memories. I’m not surprised you had such a dream.”
“It was a very sweet dream,” he said softly. He stood and slowly groped his way toward me.
“Wait. Let me come for you.” I reached his side and, taking his hand, I set it on my arm. “I’m sorry I left you to fend for yourself last night.”
“I was fine.”
“I didn’t mean to be so thoughtless.” And yet, how good it had felt. To think only of my own needs and no one else’s. How selfish, I rebuked myself. I guided him to the ewer of wash-water.
“Don’t apologize. The sweetsleep affected you exactly as I knew it would.”
His pack was overturned, Amber’s wardrobe spilled out across the floor. “Do you want me to put your clothing back in the pack?” I asked him.
He straightened from washing his face with one hand, groped for and found a drying cloth. “Sweet Eda, no! I’ll have Spark repack our things. Fitz, you’ve never had respect for fabric or lace. I won’t trust you with it now.” He came toward me, his hands fluttering before him. His bared hand touched my shoulder, and then he crouched down over the spilled pack. He found garments by touch, considering texture. He paused once to hold up a skirt. “Is this blue? Or turquoise?”
“Blue,” I said, and he set it aside. “Are you hungry? Shall I ring for food?”
“Please,” he said as he shook out a white blouse.
I think he listened to my boots on the tiles, for just as I reached the entry to the sitting room, he said, “If you would shut the door?”
I did so and then explored the room. I judged that the heavy furniture of dark wood had come from Bingtown. I found a flower painted on a twining vine on a trellis that framed the door. It was slightly raised, and I touched it. The petals blushed from pink to red and back again. I stepped back from it. I heard nothing, no bell in the distance. I walked to the window. I looked out in puzzlement, for the garden below was in riotous bloom. Out there, a fountain splashed and a caged bird hopped from perch to perch. Flowers blossomed. Another step, and my perspective of the window changed. Despite the bird’s motion and the flowers nodding in the breeze, there was no window. More Elderling magic.
I tapped on the door to the bedchamber. “I’ve rung for food.”
“You may come in,” Amber’s voice replied. And when I entered, she was seated before the mirror she could not see, pushing a brush through her short pale hair and then patting at it. She seemed to feel me looking at her. “Does it bother you?” she asked me.
I did not ask her what she meant. “Strange to say, no. You are you. Fool, Lord Golden, Amber, and Beloved. You are you, and we know each other as well as any two people can.”
“Beloved,” she said, and smiled sadly. I did not know if she repeated my word, or if the Fool called me by his own name. She dropped her hands to the top of the table, gloved one atop the bared one. “There was a time,” she began, “when you would have hated this masquerade.”
“There was,” I agreed. “And this is a different time.”
She smiled at that. And nodded. She turned her head as if glancing at me. “Did you . . . would you like to be the Fitz you were last night? The man who had only himself to care for?”
I did not answer swiftly. I could have blamed it on the tea, or claimed not to recall it. But I did. Perhaps it had been the tea, but he was right. I had simply let go of everything and everyone and thought only of myself. Once, it was all I had longed for. I wanted to be free of obligations to family, to duty to the Farseer throne: I’d wanted to do only what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. Last night I’d had a taste of that. I had no idea how the Fool had found his way around an unfamiliar room, how he had washed himself or found the garments he’d slept in. I’d abandoned him to his own diminished resources.
“I don’t think you’d like him much,” I replied ashamedly.
“On the contrary. Why do you think I urged you to drink it?” Slowly he held out a hand to me. “Fitz. Would you come here?”
I walked over to him. “I’m here.”
His gloved hand groped over my belly and then found my hand. He took it in his. He sighed. “I hate what I do to you. What I’ve done to your life. I am dependent on you, now more than ever, though I have always needed my Catalyst to accomplish anything. I am ashamed when I think of the danger, pain, and loss I’ve caused you. I hate knowing that you are ever mindful of me and my needs.”
“Loss?” I was confused.
“But for me, you might never have lost Molly for all those years.”
“No. I’d have been dead instead.”
His laugh was a hoarse bark. “True. But against all odds, I became fond of you early in our acquaintance. The look on your face when Shrewd pushed that pin through the front of your jerkin. You gave him your heart, as I had given him mine, and for a moment I knew purest envy. Because I suddenly wanted you for my own. Not just as my Catalyst. As my friend.”
“We’ve been that.”
“And more. And that was what the Servants never grasped until I betrayed you. That you were more to me than my Catalyst. Yet even I did not realize the full import of that closeness. That a child who was as much mine as yours and Molly’s would be the result. A child given to us. Because I used you so mercilessly. And a child stolen, because I betrayed you.”
“Fool. Stop. You gave me as much as you took from me.” The look of abject apology on his face was making me uncomfortable.
“Not really, Fitz. Not really.”
“You saved my life. More than once.”
“After endangering it, usually. Fitz. If you save a colt’s life because you intend later to ride it into battle, it tinges the act with a high degree of selfishness.”
There was a knock at the door. He released my hand. For a moment longer, I stood still. He spoke quietly. “Last night, you had one night without feeling obligations. For one night, you were able to let go of your grief. For one night, I released you to think only of yourself. One night of living as most men do every day. A very small respite.” He patted my chest. “You should see who is at the door.”
When I answered it, it was Spark. “I thought perhaps Lady Amber would need my assistance,” she said, and Amber immediately called to her to come and help. She hurried past me, pulling the door almost shut behind her, and for a time I listened to a lady give directions to her maid. When a second knock was a servant with a little wheeled table, they both emerged. Spark had painted Amber’s lips and rouged the tops of her cheeks. It more accented the pale scaling than concealed it, but I said nothing.
“I can serve them,” Spark suggested and the servant girl seemed only too happy to leave. Spark uncovered platters and poured tea for us both, and I sat down to a simple breakfast with Amber. Porridge with raisins cooked in it, and honey to sweeten it. Bacon. Stewed dried plums.
“Spark, have you eaten?” I asked the girl. She looked surprised.
“Of course. Hours ago, with the other servingfolk. They’ve made us very welcome. Everyone is very fond of Ephron. You are the hero of the day.”
“Hero,” I said softly. So strange.
“The bacon tastes a bit odd,” Amber observed.
“It’s bear. Bear bacon,” I told her. There was a folded sheet of pale-blue paper on the tray as well. I unfolded it and perused it quickly. “There’s a note here, from Queen Malta. She asks that as soon as we have breakfasted, we join her downstairs. The children will be waiting there.” I tried to keep foreboding from my voice as I relayed the message.
“You will do your best, Fitz. You’ve warned them.”
“Warning does not prevent disappointment,” I said. Of Spark, I asked, “Do you know if Perseverance is awake yet? And if Lord Lant has been summoned as well?”
“Yes to both, sir. Perseverance has leapt at the chance to be shown a bit of the city by one of the other serving boys. And Lant, I believe, went with them.”
I had not foreseen that. “Very well,” I said faintly. How befuddled had I been last night, not to have warned them to stay close? Some of my trepidation must have shown on my face for Spark added, “I’m sure they’ll be safe, sir. What you did for the prince last night? It was all the servants could gossip about this morning. They were very impressed and eager to be kind to us.”
“I wish Lant and Per had been a bit more cautious,” I grumbled. Amber lifted one shoulder in a delicate shrug.
Spark seemed to already know her way about the Greeting Hall. Amber put her hand on my arm and I followed Spark down the passage I recalled from the night before. “There are no windows at all,” I observed. “Only painted images of windows with views that move as if real when one pauses to look at them.”
“I’d dearly love to see them,” Amber said wistfully in the Fool’s voice.
“I wish you could,” I rejoined, and her grip on my arm tightened for a moment.
As soon as we reached the ground floor, a serving man came to meet us. “This way, if you please. King Reyn and Queen Malta await you in the Reception Hall.”
But when we approached the door of the chamber, General Rapskal stood before it, his arms crossed on his chest. Now that I was somewhat rested and alert, not to mention recovered from our Skill-portal journey, he looked less imposing. Part of that was that he had no dragon with him. Amber’s grip on my arm tightened slightly. “What is it?”
I lifted my voice. “General Rapskal. So nice to meet you under more pleasant circumstances.”
“You escort a thief.”
My smile was bland. “I do not take your meaning, sir.”
His gaze flickered to Amber, lingered for a moment on her eyes, and then came back to me. “Perhaps not. But you shall.”
He pushed away from the wall he had leaned on and stood blocking our way. The servant who had been leading us gave a small gasp of dismay and scampered away. No help from that quarter, then. I set my weight on the balls of my feet. Amber felt that slight shift and lifted her hand from my arm so I’d be free to move quickly if I had to.
“Let me be plain, then. The women who accompany you were prowlers in the streets of Kelsingra but four nights ago. They dared to invade a part of our city that is forbidden to travelers.”
Four nights. Four nights. We’d lost time in the portal again . . . I snapped my thoughts back to the present. “And they supposedly stole something? What did they steal?” I tried to keep my voice bemused. The news of the time loss rattled me more than his accusation of theft.
He opened his mouth and then snapped it shut. His scaling flushed with sudden color. I felt his anger as an undirected ripple of Skill. Somewhere, a dragon trumpeted shrilly. He glared at Lady Amber who stared blindly ahead, her expression puzzled. I heard footsteps approaching behind me and turned my head just enough to catch them at the edge of my vision. Two Elderlings approached, in battle harness similar to that their general wore. One was short and broad, almost squat for an Elderling. The other at his side had the tall, lanky build I had come to regard as normal. Both wore sheathed swords, as did their general. I was unarmed, assuming that, as at Buckkeep Castle, one did not wear a weapon when summoned to an audience with the king. This could go very badly for us in a very short time. From the corner of my eye, I saw Spark unobtrusively sidle up to Amber’s unguarded flank. Thank you, Foxglove. I hoped she had a knife in her boot.
“Take them into custody,” Rapskal ordered his men. “We need to confine them to a secure area for questioning.”
The Fool had always been an excellent actor, long trained to concealing his thoughts and feelings. But torture breaks many things in a man. He took a tiny, audible breath and then stood very still.
“If it please you, General Rapskal,” I intervened, “we are summoned to a meeting with the king and queen this morning. Spark, have you the note we received?”
“Yes, my lord. It is here.”
I did not turn to look at her. I heard the rustle of her garments as she sought a note in her pocket. I hoped she also took the opportunity to be sure the smaller tools of our trade were ready to her hands. How well had Chade trained her? And where was Lant? Already taken into custody?
Before us, the double doors suddenly swung wide open and General Rapskal had to skip aside to avoid being struck. “There is no need for her to produce a note when I am here to welcome my guests.” King Reyn stood suddenly in the open door before us. The manservant who had fled us was two steps behind him, wringing his hands. “Welcome. Please come in. And you, too, General Rapskal. Did not you also receive my invitation? I see that Kase and Boxter are here. Excellent. I summoned all of the keepers, I believe.” He focused himself on me. “Four children await you. As I told you, there are not many, but these four need your aid the most.”
“My lord, these people are dangerous. Especially the woman.” Rapskal’s followers moved to form up behind him.
Reyn sighed. “General Rapskal, the ‘woman’ is Lady Amber, long known to my queen, since before our war with Chalced. She was an artisan in Bingtown in those days, with her own shop on Rain Wild Street. She made beads and charms carved from wood. Later she served aboard Paragon, and was instrumental in the recovery of Igrot’s treasure. Her generous loans from that wealth helped rebuild Bingtown and helped the Tattooed begin new lives in Trehaug. You will treat her with respect.”
Rapskal’s glare met Reyn’s flat stare. I sensed a power struggle in which, perhaps, we were no more than pawns. General Rapskal would not be the first military leader to believe he could rule better than his king. After a moment, Rapskal replied, “Of course I will.” His words said one thing, his tone another. Quietly he added, “I will be proved correct,” and preceded us into the room.
Reyn’s facial expression did not change. He stepped aside to allow the general passage and then with a sweep of his arm gestured that we should enter. I heard a swift tapping of boots behind me and risked a quick glance. Lant and Per were hurrying down the corridor. Both were red-cheeked and smiling. They’d enjoyed their outing in the wintry streets of Kelsingra. I could not stop them from running into the same snare that held us.
I spoke calmly to Amber. “Ah, here are Lord Lant and young Perseverance come to join us. They look as if they’ve had a lively morning.”
“Oh, sir!” Per was gasping from his excitement as well as his pace. “The magic of this place is everywhere. The things I’ve seen this morning!” His grin widened. “And Motley is fine! I was worried for her, but she came and landed on my shoulder. She would not stay. The city makes her uncomfortable, but oh, sir, it’s wonderful!”
“Later,” I warned him in a kindly voice. “Compose yourself and show your best Six Duchies manners, boy. Just as Foxglove taught you.” They both gave me puzzled looks. Puppies. Little more than puppies. I could do nothing to make my warning plainer, and neither Lant nor Perseverance wore a blade, I noted. At least not one I could see. I had two small knives concealed on my body. I hoped we would not be searched.
Rapskal’s guard fell in behind us as we entered. King Reyn had gone ahead of us and was already speaking to Malta while General Rapskal stood nearby, scowling and shifting. I took in the details of the hall as quickly as I could. There were rows of the false windows down both sides of the chamber. No escape there. Not many folk were gathered. I estimated there were fewer than twenty Elderlings and about the same number of folk who bore the marks of dragon change without the beauty the Elderlings possessed. The serving man who had escorted us was moving hastily about the hall, gathering other servants and escorting them out. I led my small party down the center of the room. Malta was already seated in a tall chair on a modest dais. She regarded me with a tentative, hopeful smile. To the right of Reyn’s chair but not on the dais, Ephron sat on a simpler chair. He grinned at us. Among the onlookers, a child coughed and then began to cry noisily. I heard a father trying to comfort it. All fell silent as the doors closed behind us with a thump. We were the only humans left; all around us Elderlings lined the walls and looked at us. Reyn hastened to take his place. This was our formal welcome to Kelsingra, and as one who had seen many royal occasions, I did not find it especially impressive.
“I cannot see,” Amber reminded me in a soft whisper. Her hand on my arm was trembling slightly. I wondered what she imagined. A horde of armed guards ready to sweep us off to a torture chamber? I was not entirely certain that would not happen. At her words, Spark began a hasty and whispered description. I was grateful.
At what I considered a respectful distance from the dais I halted our party. “Now we make our courtesies,” I told them in a low voice.
“Not too deep a bow. You are a prince,” Lant reminded me. A useful thought.
“Welcome to Kelsingra,” King Reyn greeted us. “My friends and fellow traders, before us stand emissaries from the distant Six Duchies: Prince FitzChivalry Farseer and Lord Lant. Accompanying them is Lady Amber, known to some of you as a friend and to others by reputation. You will remember that her loaning of funds was instrumental to the rebuilding of Bingtown and the resettling of the former slaves in Trehaug. Prince FitzChivalry comes to us as not only an emissary but also a healer. Last night he kindly shared his ability to aid my son Ephron. All of you know that Phron has suffered badly from a breathing blockage. Now he can breathe, talk, and once more eat and drink and move freely. For this, both Malta and I offer thanks.”
“And I!” Ephron injected with a smile. There was a scattering of laughter at his irreverence, and I perceived that this was more like a merchant guild’s meeting than a royal reception.
“King Reyn and Queen Malta, good morning,” I began. “We are here, as you invited us to be. I was very glad to be of service to you yesterday. It is our hope that the Six Duchies and Kelsingra can remain trading partners and firm friends.” A general enough statement that I hoped I had not compromised any treaties Dutiful had in mind. “The wonders of your city have astounded all of us. Such a grand and wonderful hall! I see that there are other Elderlings in attendance here, their children with them.” I smiled and let my glance sweep the hall. I wondered if the Fool’s dragon-sense could tell him how many there were.
I paused to draw breath, and in that moment General Rapskal stepped out from the gathering. “My friends and fellow dragon-keepers, I beg you to be wary. Malta and Reyn are too trustful of these travelers, blinded by parental gratitude. They are here not as emissaries, but as spies and thieves!”
I did not miss that he did not accord Malta and Reyn royal titles. Amber’s grip on my forearm tightened. I kept the dignity of a still face and wondered if Reyn or Malta would defend us or if I must cobble together a quick riposte.
A tall Elderling with lavender-and-black scaling stepped forward. He carried a small boy in his arms. The child looked to be about three, but his head lolled weakly as if he were a newborn. The man’s violet eyes were very large in his pale face and he blinked them at me slowly. His lips were dark. No wonder or alarm showed on his face, only weariness. “Enough words. I came here for my boy’s sake. Rapskal, I don’t care if they’ve stolen Icefyre’s back teeth. Help my child. That’s all I care about just now.” The woman at his side was far more human than Elderling but still obviously marked by dragon contact. Her jaw was fringed with dangling growths like a sun-lizard’s. She clasped her hands under her chin as if praying, and a line of silvery scales showed in the parting of her dark hair.
“Nortel, I understand that you feel—”
“No, Rapskal! You don’t understand. You don’t have a child, let alone a child who is slowly dying. So you can’t understand and you don’t understand. You don’t need to be here, all dressed up like soldiers. Neither does Kase or Boxter. You should all leave.”
“Hey!” One of Rapskal’s guardsmen was clearly insulted. His copper eyes flashed and the color in his bronze-and-orange scaling heightened. “I’ve got a child. I understand.”
Nortel rounded on him. “No, Kase, you don’t understand. Skrim dotes on your little girl. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t see her climbing on his tail or sitting on his leg. He’s scarcely been gone for a week since she was born. But my Tinder left when Maude was still pregnant and hasn’t returned. He’s never even seen Rellik, let alone shaped him. And we can’t wait any longer for my dragon to come back and do right by my son.”
“Not conducted like any monarchy I’ve ever encountered,” Amber observed under her breath. But Amber could not see what I could. Nortel marched toward me, his listless child jouncing in his arms. The child’s eyes were dull and uninterested in his fate. Maude followed him, her hands over her mouth now. “Please, sir, if you can help my boy, help him. Help him now. Please.” He tipped the boy away from his shoulder and held him out to me. The boy’s head and legs dangled, and I did not even think as I reached out to support his lolling head.
I shot a questioning glance toward Reyn, but it was Malta who was nodding like a toy, her hands clasped as if in supplication.
“I cannot make any promises . . .”
“I don’t ask any. Do what you can, for he grows weaker with every passing day. Please. Help my boy, and anything within my power is yours.”
“The lives and health of children are not to be bartered,” Amber said clearly. “What he can do, he will. But it may take a toll on the child as well. His body will heal him; the prince will but guide the process. It can be taxing. I speak from experience.”
The parents did not hesitate. “Please,” begged Nortel. I looked around at the clustered Elderlings. Some held children. If I failed, I had no idea what would befall us. I set my other hand on the boy that his father offered to me.
I lowered my walls.
The Skill immersed me, as if I had stepped into a surging wave. It filled and flooded me and then connected me to the child I touched. I knew this boy, this Elderling child, and knew how he should have grown, and saw what his body needed to do to correct itself. The Skill that flowed through me diverted to flow through him. The lure of the Skill, the terrible danger of that heady magic that every Skill-candidate is taught to block and suppress, shone before me in all its glittering, surging beauty. We dived into it and swam through it. His own body opened what was constricted, loosened what was too tight. It was a perfect alignment of purpose and solution. I guided the power as if I were tracing the lettering on a precious scroll. Perfect. He would be perfect. He smiled at me and I smiled back. I gazed at him and through him and saw what a marvelous creature was this child.
“I, I felt him heal!” Someone said this, at a great distance, and then he took from me the beauty of what I had mended. I opened my eyes, wavering on my feet. Nortel held his son. The boy was weak but smiling. He held his head steady and reached up a thin hand to touch his father’s scaled cheek and then laughed aloud. Maude gave a shriek and embraced them both. They stood, the three of them a weeping, smiling pillar.
“Fitz?” Someone spoke close by. Someone shook my arm. It was Amber. I turned to her, smiling and puzzled.
“I wish you could have seen that,” I said quietly.
“I felt it,” she said quietly. “I very much doubt if anyone here did not feel it. The building seemed to hum around us. Fitz, this was a bad idea. You have to stop. This is dangerous.”
“Yes. But more than that, it’s right. It’s very right.”
“Fitz, you must listen to me—”
“Please. It’s her feet. They started to go wrong about a year ago. She used to run and play. She can scarcely walk anymore.”
I gave my head a shake and turned away from Amber. An Elderling woman with hummocked shoulders stood before me. But they were not her shoulders at all. What I had taken for fabric-draped hummocks I now saw were the tops of her wings. They were blue and the tops of them were as high as her ears; the trailing plumes nearly swept the floor behind her. A girl of about seven leaned on her, partially supported by her Elderling father on the other side. His markings were green, the mother’s blue, and the child bore a twining of both colors. “She is ours,” the father said. “But from month to month neither of our dragons claims her. Or both do, and squabble over her growth as if she were a toy, one changing what the other wrought. Both our dragons have gone to a warmer place for the winter months. Since then, she has grown worse.”
“Tats, Thymara, do you think it wise to ask him to interfere? Will not both Fente and Sintara take this amiss when they return?” Queen Malta cautioned them.
“When they return, I will worry about it,” Thymara declared. “Until then, why should Fillia pay for their neglect? Six Duchies prince, can you help her?”
I studied the child. I could almost see the conflicting plans for her. One ear was tasseled, the other pointed. The discord rang against my senses like the chiming of a cracked bell. I tried to be cautious. “I don’t know. And if I try, I may have to draw on her strength, on the reserves of her own body. It will be her own flesh that makes the changes. I can guide her, but I cannot supply what her body needs.”
“I don’t understand,” Tats objected.
I pointed at her feet. “You can see that her feet strive to become the feet of a dragon. Some bone must go away, flesh must be added. I cannot cut nor can I add. Her body must do that.” I could hear the muttering of the gathered Elderlings as they discussed my words.
The green father dropped to one knee to look into his daughter’s face. “You must decide, Fillia. Do you want to do this?”
She looked up at me, in fear and hope. “I want to run again and not have it hurt. My face is tight when I try to smile so that I think my lips will crack.” She touched her scaled scalp. “I would have hair, to keep me warmer!” She lifted her hands to me. Her nails were blue and tipped like claws. “Please,” she said.
“Yes,” I responded. I held my hands out to her and she set her fate in them. Two slender hands in my sword-callused ones. I felt her pain as she struggled to balance on her twisted feet. I sank down to sit on the floor and she folded gratefully. The Skill in me sent a tendril to touch her brow. This one, ah, this one was a puzzle. Here was her father and there her mother, and here the dragons that had touched her and quarreled over her like two children ripping at a single doll. There were so many possible ways. “What would you like?” I asked her, and her face lit. Her vision of herself surprised me. She did not mind her strong clawed feet, if only they would grow straight. She wished for a blue horse on one cheek, and for the darker green in her scaling to run up her back and down her arms like vines. She wanted black hair, thick and strong like her mother’s, and ears that she could move to catch sound. She showed me and with the Skill, I persuaded her body to follow her will. I heard as at a distance her parents speaking in worried tones, but it was not their choice to make but hers. And when at last she stepped back from me, walking on the front pads of her high arched feet, shaking back a glossy mane, she cried out to them, “See me! This is me!”
Another child they brought to me, born with nostrils so flat to his face that he could scarcely breathe. We found the nose he should have had, and lengthened his fingers and set his hips so that he might walk upright. This child moaned and I was sorry for how he ached with the turning of his bones, but, “It must be done!” the Skill and I whispered to him. He was thin when I gifted him back to his fathers, and panting with pain. One stared at me, teeth bared, and the other wept, but the boy breathed and the hands that he reached to them had thumbs he could move.
“Fitz. You are finished. Stop.” Amber’s voice trembled.
The Skill coursed through me and I recalled that this rush of pleasure was as dangerous as it was sweet. To some. To some it was dangerous. But I was learning, I’d learned so much this very day. I could control it in ways I’d never learned before, in ways I’d never thought were possible. To touch with a tendril, to read the makeup of a child, to allow someone to guide the Skill I wielded as if sharing a grip on a brush, all this I could do.
And I could cool the Skill, reduce it from a boil to a simmer. I could control it.
“Please!” a woman shouted suddenly. “Kind prince, if you would, cannot you open my womb! Let me conceive and bear a child! Please. I beg you, I beg you!”
She flung herself down at my feet and embraced my knees. Her head was bowed, her hair hanging past her heavily scaled face as she sobbed. She was no Elderling but one whose body had been distorted by contact with dragons. With every child I had touched, the influences of a dragon on a growing human body had become plainer to me. In some of the children, I had seen deliberation and even art in how dragons had marked them. But in this woman, the changes were as random as a tree planted in rocky soil and shaded by a boulder. As close as she was to me, I could not exclude her from my Skill, and as it closed around her I felt her innate ability in the magic. It was untrained and yet in that instant I shared how deep her longing for a child was, and how it distressed her to watch the slow years pass and her cradle remain empty.
Such a familiar pang. How could I refuse such a request when I knew so well what it was like to have it denied? Why had I never sought to use the Skill to find why Molly could not bear a child for us? Years wasted, never to be recovered. I set my hands to her shoulders to lift her to her feet and in doing so closed a circle. We were bound for that moment, the pain of loss tying us together, and what had been crooked in her the Skill straightened and what had been closed opened. She cried out suddenly and stepped back from me, her hands clasped over her belly. “I felt the change!” she cried out. “I felt it!”
“Enough!” Amber cried in a low voice. “This must be enough.”
But there was suddenly before me a man saying, “Please, please, the scales have grown down my brow and onto my eyelids. I can barely see. Push them back, I beg of you, prince from the Six Duchies.” He seized my hand and set it to his face. Did he have the Skill as the woman had, or was it that it was running so strongly in me that I could not deny it? I felt the scales retreat from his eyelids, from his brow-line, and he fell back from me laughing aloud.
Someone took my hand and held it tightly. I felt the fabric of a glove against my skin.
“King Reyn! Queen Malta, please, tell them they must step back! He heals them at great danger to himself. He must stop, he must take rest now. See how he shakes! Please, tell them they must not ask more of him.” I heard the words. They meant little to me.
“Good keepers and friends, you hear Lady Amber! Step back, give him room!” Malta’s voice came from across the room. Closer to me were other voices.
“Please, kind prince!”
“My hands, if only you would mend my hands!”
“I wish to look like a woman again, not a lizard! My prince, please, please!”
In a lower voice, I heard the Fool give his orders. “Spark, Per, stand before him and hold them back. Push them back! Lant, where are you? Lant?”
“People of Kelsingra! Keep order. Step back from the prince, give him room!” There was anxiety in Reyn’s voice, bordering on fear.
It was hard to use my eyesight when the Skill flowed so strongly all around me, far more potent than any of my senses, far stronger even than my Wit. My eyes were poor things, relying on light to show me the outer shapes of things. Still, I looked for Lant and found him at my side, struggling to take something from his pocket. In front of me, Spark and Per had linked arms and stood between me and a wall of pushing people. They could not hold them back, not when such need consumed them. I closed my eyes and stopped my ears. Such senses only confused me when I could blanket the room with Skill and know so much more.
Amber’s gloved hand still gripped mine and her free hand was on my chest now, trying to push me back and away from the reaching hands. It was a hopeless gesture. The room was large and the people had flowed to surround us. There was no “back” now, only a noose of desperate people struggling toward us.
As mobs go, it was a small one, and no one meant me harm. Some pushed toward me out of hunger and need. Some strove to be first, others only to see what wonder I would next work, and some pushed to try and break through the wall of people in front of them so that they might have a chance to beg a boon of their own. One woman pushed because she did not want another woman to reach me and have her face changed, lest she win the man they both desired. Rapskal was in the thick of it, with Kase and Boxter, not to find order but to see if somehow Amber would betray that she was sighted, for he was certain she had been to the Silver well, and he was consumed with hatred that anyone would attempt to steal Silver from the dragons.
“Fitz. Fitz! Fitz! You have to stop. Set your walls, come back to yourself. Fitz!”
I had forgotten my body. It was shaking all around me and Lant’s arms were around my chest, trying to hold me up. “Get away from us!” Lant roared, and for a moment the press of the crowd lessened. But those who could see me collapsing were pushed forward by those who wished to know what was happening. This I knew in a dispassionate way. I would fall, Lant would go down holding on to me, the grim youngsters trying to hold back the crowd would stumble backward, and we would be trampled.
The Skill told me that Amber had been pushed up under my arm. “Fitz,” the Fool said by my ear. “Fitz, where are you? I can’t feel you. Fitz, put up your walls! Please, Fitz. Beloved.”
“Give him this!” Lant cried out to her.
None of it mattered. Skill was a spreading pool and I was spreading with it. There were others here, diluted and mingled. They’d enjoyed what I had done. I sensed that there were some here who were larger and more intact, larger souls that were more defined. Older and wiser. I couldn’t be one of them. There wasn’t enough of me. I’d spread and disperse. Mingle. I could just let go. It would be like the sweetsleep. Stop the worries, give up the guilt. The worst were the sharp-edged hopes that I still clung to. The hope that somewhere, somehow, Bee still existed and would tumble intact from a Skill-pillar. But it was far more likely that she was here in this amorphous mingling. Perhaps letting go was the closest I’d ever get to reuniting with her.
Being Fitz had never been that enticing an existence.
Fingers prying at my lips, pressing on my teeth. Bitterness in my mouth. The Skill-tide that had surged so strongly against me became a lapping of calmer water. I tried to recede with it.
The touch of fingers on my wrist burned. Burned exquisitely, pain and ecstasy inseparable.
The word echoed through me, rebounded from my fraying edges, found and bound me. I was there, trapped in an exhausted and shaking body, trembling as Lant hugged me from behind and held me upright. His hand was over my mouth and I tasted elfbark. Dry powder coated my lips. Per and Spark, arms locked, faced out into the press. They were crowded up against Amber, pushing her against me.
The Fool embraced me, his head bowed on my chest. One of his arms was around my neck, holding on to me. I clutched an empty glove in one hand. Slowly and dully, I lifted that hand to look at the glove. The Fool’s hand, his fingers gleaming silver, clutched my wrist, burning my identity into me. The bond was shockingly and completely renewed.
“I told you!” Rapskal’s shout was guttural with excitement and validation. “I told you they were thieves! See there, see on her hand, my proof! Silver! She has stolen Silver from the dragons and she must be punished! Seize her! Seize all of them!”
A moment of horror and shock. I heard Spark give a shriek as someone grabbed her. In the next instant the Fool was torn away from me. I struggled to remain standing.
I heard the Fool scream as the surging crowd engulfed us.