When Regal the Pretender retreated to the inland duchies, the coastal duchies were left rudderless. Strong as the dukes of Bearns, Shoaks, and Rippon were, they were each too engrossed in defending their own coasts to mount any meaningful unified response to the Red Ships. The titular Duke of Buck, a cousin to the Pretender Regal, was little more than a placeholding puppet who could do nothing to rally the nobles.
It was at this time that Lady Patience, queen of the former King-in-Waiting Chivalry, rose to prominence. What began with the selling of her jewels to keep the warships of Buck manned and active soon consumed almost all of her personal fortune as she worked to keep up the spirits of her farmers and miners, as well as rallying the lesser nobility to organize their own forces to repel the invaders.
This was the situation to which Queen Kettricken returned. Pregnant with the Farseer heir, she and her minstrel, Starling Birdsong, were transported from the Elderling lands to the battlements of Buckkeep Castle, flown there by an immense dragon. King Verity escorted her to safety before rejoining his dragon mount. With the other Elderling warriors astride their dragon steeds, he took to the air to resume the great battle he had begun against the Red Ships. Few were present to witness the king’s return to Buckkeep, and had his queen not been there to attest to his presence, with the minstrel Starling Birdsong to swear truth to it, her sudden appearance would have seemed almost magical. The sparkling dragons that filled the sky had been a terrifying sight to the defenders of Buck until the queen revealed that they were no danger to the folk of Buck, but instead were in the command of their rightful king, and had come to defend them.
On that day, before nightfall, all the Red Ships were driven from the shores of Buck. The legions of dragons swiftly spread out, securing the entire coastline of the Six Duchies before the moon had waxed twice full again. Many a shoreline defender and doughty sailor can attest to how the dragons would appear as distant sparkling lights in the sky, which grew larger and larger until their power and majesty sent the raiders fleeing.
Against this backdrop, the Mountain princess turned Six Duchies queen returned to accept her crown. Lady Patience remained at her side for the remaining months of the war, advising her and putting the reins of power securely into her hands. With the birth of the heir, the succession was secured.
I descended, shut the door, peeked out through my shuttered window, and was horrified. Truly the morning had fled while I was with the Fool. I was still in my nightshirt, unwashed, unshaven, and possibly already late for my audience with Kettricken. To add to my annoyance, Ash had visited my rooms again. The fire was freshly stirred and a new outfit for Lord Feldspar had been draped on the chair. His rescued brown wig had been transferred to a fresh hat and carefully brushed. Well, growing up the son of a courtesan had at least taught Ash some useful valet skills. I knew I had latched my door. I wondered if Chade had given him a key or if he had slipped the lock. It wasn’t an easy lock to jigger. I tried not to let that question distract me as I quickly washed, shaved, stanched the bleeding from my hasty blade, and dressed in the fresh garments.
One of the scabbed wounds on my back had broken open as I took off my nightshirt. I put on Lord Feldspar’s long-sleeved tunic and a gaudy vest over it, hoping the stripes of bright color were in honor of Winterfest. I dreaded the idea that the imaginary lord dressed this way every day. The leggings were moderately comfortable, and the vest admirably concealed no less than six tiny pockets of various nasty things. Settling the wig and the ridiculously tiny hat pinned to it consumed more minutes than I liked, and yet I knew it was the one piece that must be done perfectly. I pinched and scratched at my nose until it was the appropriate shade of red. Soot from the fire with a few drops of water made my brows heavier. The heeled shoes with the silly toes slipped onto my stocking feet and the moment I stood up one of my feet cramped abominably. I kicked the shoes off and stamped around the room until it passed. Then, muttering curses on Chade, I put them back on and left my room, locking the door behind me.
My foot cramped again twice before I reached the bottom of the stairs, and it was all I could do to keep my steps steady and betray no sign of how badly I wanted to hop and stamp. Kettricken’s audience chamber had once served as a private parlor for Queen Desire and her ladies. This I knew only because I had been told of it; that woman had never tolerated me within her sight, let alone within her private chambers. I dismissed the last clinging shreds of childhood dread as I approached the tall oak doors. They were closed. Outside on several benches perched those hopeful of currying influence with the king by bestowing their attentions and gifts upon his mother. I took my place at the end of a lavishly cushioned bench and waited. Eventually, the door opened, a young noblewoman was ushered out, and a rather bored page in white-and-purple livery approached the next aspirant and ushered him in. When the page returned, I made myself known to her and resumed my wait on the bench.
I had rather expected that I would not have to wait in line, but Kettricken was true to her Mountain roots. Each petitioner was invited in turn and allotted time with Lady Kettricken, and then was ushered out. I sat and waited, with my foot spasming inside the evil shoe and a pleasant and hopeful expression on my face. When finally the page beckoned to me, I rose and managed to follow her into the room without limping. As the tall doors closed behind me, I allowed myself a smile. There was a cozy hearth, several comfortable chairs, and a low table with cushions around it. A collection of curious or beautiful objects from every one of the Six Duchies was displayed on various tables about the room. Some might have seen it as a blatant display of wealth, but I divined the truth of it. Kettricken had never had any great use for possessions. These gifts, these tokens of esteem from the lords and ladies of the Six Duchies and from foreign lands and emissaries, must not be discarded. And so she kept them here, in a casual and cluttered display that ran counter to her austere Mountain upbringing. I let my eyes wander over them briefly before making my obeisance to Kettricken.
“Courage, you may go. Let the kitchen know my guests and I are ready for our refreshment. Please let Witmaster Web also know that I am ready to see him at his earliest convenience.”
I remained standing until the little page had left the room, and was grateful when Kettricken wearily gestured me to a seat. She pursed her lips as she regarded me and then asked, “Is this mummery yours, Fitz, or another puppet show from Chade?”
“Lord Chade facilitated it, but I agreed that it was the prudent thing to do. As Lord Feldspar I am able to move about Buckkeep Castle as your guest for Winterfest without exciting comment.”
“After all these years, I should be resigned to the need for such deceptions. But they only make me long for simple truth. One day, FitzChivalry Farseer, I would like you to stand before the court and be acknowledged as yourself and given credit for your many years of service to the crown. One day you should take your rightful place at Dutiful’s side, and be openly recognized as his mentor and protector.”
“Oh, please don’t threaten me with that,” I begged her, and she smiled tolerantly and drew her chair a bit closer to mine.
“Very well, then. But what of your daughter. What of clever little Bee?”
“Clever little Bee.” I repeated her words. They numbed my mouth.
“So I have heard, in the missives Lant has sent Nettle. She received one just two days ago. She was quite relieved to hear her sister was doing so well at her lessons. Indeed, that in some areas, such as her reading and writing, she scarcely needs his instructions.”
“I think she is a bright child,” I conceded. Then, disloyally, I added, “But I am sure that all fathers think their daughters are clever.”
“Well. Some fathers do. I hope you are one of them. Nettle was startled that her sister was developing very differently from how she had feared. When the news reached me, I was very pleased. And intrigued. I had feared the child would not survive, let alone prosper. But my intent is that we will send for her, and then I can see for myself.” She folded her hands and rested her chin on her fingers. She waited.
“Perhaps the next time I come to Buckkeep, I will bring her with me,” I offered. I hoped my desperation did not sound in my voice. Bee was too little, too different to be brought to court. How much did I dare tell Kettricken?
“Then you do not intend to stay long with us?”
“Only until the Fool is hearty enough to endure a Skill-healing.”
“And you think that will be so soon that your little daughter will not miss you?”
Oh, Kettricken. I did not meet her eyes. “Probably later rather than sooner,” I admitted reluctantly.
“Then we should send for her now.”
“Traveling conditions are so harsh . . .”
“There is that. But in a comfortable carriage, accompanied by my personal guard, she might do well. Even through the storms. I am sure they will manage to find respectable inns every night.”
“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”
The look she gave me implied her plan was immutable. “I have,” she said, and with that settled, she changed the topic. “How fares Lord Golden?”
I started to shake my head and then shrugged instead. She had made her plans for Bee, but I would let her distract me while I planned my own campaign. “Better than he was, in some ways. Warm, clean, fed, and some of his lesser injuries have begun to heal. But he is still closer to death’s door than to the gates of health.”
For a moment, her years showed on her face. “I could scarcely believe it was him. If you had not been there to vouch for it, I would never have suspected it. Fitz, what happened to him? Who did this?”
I wondered if the Fool would want his tale shared. “I am still drawing the full tale out of him.”
“When last I saw him, years ago, he said he would return to the place where he was taught.”
“And he did.”
“And they turned on him.”
Kettricken could still take me by surprise with her leaps of intuition. “So I believe. Lady Kettricken, I am sure you recall how private a man the Fool was.”
“And is. I know what you will next suggest, that I visit him myself. And I shall. In truth, I have already called on him twice, and each time found him sleeping. But visits would be much easier for me if you and Lord Chade had not squirreled him away into your old den. I’m a bit old to be stooping and scuttling through narrow hideaways. Surely he would be better off in a chamber that offered him light and air.”
“He is fearful of pursuit, even within the stout walls of Buckkeep. I think he will sleep best where he is right now. And as for light, well, it means little to him now.”
She shuddered as if my words were arrows that had struck her. She turned her face away, as if to hide from me the tears that filled her eyes. “That grieves me beyond words,” she choked out.
“Is there any hope that with the Skill . . .?”
The very question I still pondered. “I do not know. He is very weak. I do not wish to restore his sight if it takes the last of his strength and he dies of it. We will have to be very cautious. We have made some small progress already, and as he eats and rests and gains strength, we will do more.”
She nodded violently to that. “Please. But, oh, Fitz, why? Why would anyone treat him so?”
“They thought he knew something, and was keeping it from them.”
She turned back to face me. Weeping seldom makes a lady lovelier. Her nose had reddened and the rims of her eyes had gone pink. She no longer tried to disguise the tears running down her face. Her voice was harsh. “I deserve to know, Fitz. Do not play Chade with me. What secret could possibly be worth resisting what they did to him?”
I looked at my feet, ashamed. She did deserve to know. “He knew no secret. He had no knowledge to give them. They demanded to know where his son was. To me he has said that he has no knowledge of any such son.”
“A son.” A strange look came over her face, as if she could not decide whether to laugh or weep. “So. Are you finally giving a definite answer to the question Starling put to him so many years ago? He is, then, a man?”
I took breath, paused, and then replied, “Kettricken, he is what he is. A very private person.”
She cocked her head at me. “Well, if the Fool had given birth to a son, I think he would remember that. So that leaves him only the male role.”
I started to say that not every child was fathered in the same way. The thought of how King Verity had borrowed my body to lie with her, leaving me for a night in his old man’s skin, swept through my mind like a storm. I folded my lips on my words and looked aside from her.
“I will visit him,” she said quietly.
I nodded, relieved. There was a tap at her door. “I should go now, so you may meet your next supplicant.”
“No, you should stay. The next visitor concerns you.”
I was not entirely surprised when a page ushered Web into the room. He halted inside the door while two serving girls entered with trays of refreshments. They arranged everything on a low table while we all looked at one another. Web scowled briefly at my disguise, and I saw him reorder his impression of the man he had glimpsed last night. It was not the first time he had witnessed me assume a different character. As he evaluated me in my new guise, I studied him as well.
Web had changed since last we had spoken. For a number of years following the death of his Wit-bird Risk, he had not repartnered. That loss had wrought a change in him. When I had lost my wolf, I felt as if half my soul had gone missing, as if there were too much empty space in both my mind and my body. For a time, I had seen that same emptiness in Web when he and Nettle’s brother Swift would visit Molly and me at Withywoods. His eyes had lost their bird-brightness, and he had walked as if he were anchored to the earth. He had seemed to age decades in a matter of months.
Today he walked with his shoulders squared, and his gaze darted quickly around the room, taking in every detail. The difference was a good one, as if he had rediscovered youth. I found myself smiling at him. “Who is she?” I greeted him.
Web’s eyes met mine. “He. Not she. A young kestrel named Soar.”
“A kestrel. A bird of prey. That must be different for you.”
Web smiled and shook his head, his expression as fond as if he spoke of a child when he said, “We both have so much to learn of each other. We have been together less than four months. It is a new life for me, Fitz. His eyesight! Oh, and his appetite and his fierce joy in the hunt.” He laughed aloud and seemed almost breathless. There was more gray in his hair and deeper lines in his face, but his laugh was a boy’s.
I felt a moment of envy. I recalled the headiness of the first days with a new partner. As a child, I had joined myself to Nosy without the least hesitation, and experienced a summer with the full senses of a young hound amplifying my own. He had been taken from me. Then there had been Smithy, the dog I had bonded to in complete defiance of Burrich and common sense. Lost to me when he gave his life defending my friend. They had been companions to my heart. But it had been Nighteyes the wolf who had wrapped his soul around mine. Together we had hunted and together we had killed, both game and men. The Wit bonded us to all life. From him, I had learned to master both the exhilaration of the hunt and the shared pain of the kill. Recalling that bond, my envy faded. No one could replace him. Could another woman ever be to me what Molly had been? Would I ever have a friend who knew me as the Fool did? No. Such bonds in a man’s life are unique. I found my tongue. “I’m happy for you, Web. You look a new man.”
“I am. And I am as sad for you as you are glad for me. I wish you had a Wit- companion to sustain you in your loss.”
What to say to that? There were no words. “Thank you,” I said quietly. “It has been hard.”
Kettricken had kept silent during our exchange, but she watched me keenly. The Witmaster found a cushion and lowered himself to sit beside the table. He offered Kettricken a wide smile and then regarded the food with interest.
Kettricken smiled in return. “Please, let us not wait for formalities. Be at ease, my friends. It has given me great pleasure to watch Web recover his spirits. You should meet Soar, Fitz. I do not say that he might make you reconsider your decision to remain alone, but he has certainly given me reason to doubt my own unpartnered status.” She gave a small shake of the head. “When I saw the pain you felt at Nighteyes’s passing, I thought I wanted none of that, ever. And again when Web lost Risk, I told myself that I had been wise to refrain from sharing my heart with an animal, knowing eventually I must feel the tearing pain of departure.” She lifted her eyes from watching Web pour tea for all of us and met my incredulous gaze. “But witnessing Web’s joy in Soar, I wonder. I have been alone so long. I grow no younger. Must this be a regret I take to my grave, that I did not understand fully the magic I possessed?”
She let her words trail away. When she turned to meet my gaze, there were echoes of hurt and anger in her eyes. “Yes. I am Witted. And you knew, Fitz. Didn’t you? Long before I suspected, you knew. And you knew the Wit that so endangered Dutiful when he was a boy came from me.”
I chose my words carefully. “My lady, I think it as likely that it came from his father as from you. And ultimately, it matters little where it came from. Even now, to possess the Wit can bring—”
“It mattered to me,” she said in a low voice. “And it matters still. What I felt between Nighteyes and me was not imaginary. If I had realized that during our sojourn in the Mountains, I would have let him know what that support meant to me.”
“He knew,” I said, recklessly interrupting her. “He knew, never fear.”
I saw her take a breath, her breast rising and falling with the emotion she contained. Her Mountain training was all that kept her from berating me. Instead, she said quietly, “Sometimes thanking someone is more important to the person giving the thanks than the one who receives it.”
“I’m sorry.” Words I was heartily sick of saying. “But we were struggling with so much else. I had only the barest understanding of the Wit then, and even my grasp of what the Skill could be was tenuous. If I had told you that I suspected you were Witted, then what? I certainly could not have taught you how to manage a magic that I did not myself control well.”
“I understand that,” she said. “But nonetheless I think my life has been less fulfilling than it might have been.” In a lower voice she added, “And much lonelier.”
I had no response. It was true. I had known of the loneliness that devoured her once King Verity was transformed into a stone dragon and taken from her forever. Could an animal companion have helped her to bear that? Probably. Yet it had never occurred to me to tell her that I had sensed a feeble pulsing of the Wit in her. I had always believed it so slight that it did not matter. Unlike myself, where the Wit had demanded from my earliest childhood that I find a soul to share my life. I moved slowly across the room and sat down at the low table. Kettricken came to take her place. She spoke to me in a calmer voice as she picked up her cup. “Web tells me that it is not too late. But also not a thing for me to rush into.”
I nodded and sipped from my own cup. Was this discussion why she had summoned me? I could not imagine where it was leading.
Web looked up at Kettricken. “The bond must be mutually beneficial,” he said. He darted a glance at me as he continued, “Kettricken’s duties often confine her to the castle. Were she to bond with a large animal, or a wild creature, it would limit their time together. So I have suggested to her that she consider beasts that would be comfortable sharing her lifestyle. Cats. Dogs.”
“Ferrets. Parrots,” I pointed out, relieved to move the conversation to a different arena.
“And that is why I’ve a favor to ask of you, Fitz,” Web said abruptly.
Startled, I met his gaze.
“I know you will say no, but I am pressed to ask you anyway. There is no one else who can help her.”
I looked at Kettricken in dismay, wondering what she needed.
“No. Not Lady Kettricken,” Web assured me.
My heart sank. “Then who is she and what does she need?”
“She’s a crow. If you two come to an understanding, she’ll share her name with you.”
He spoke over my objection. “She has been alone for about six months. She was sent to me, seeking my help. She was hatched with a defect. When she fledged out, several of her pinions in each wing were white. At an early age, she was driven out of her murder. Assaulted and badly injured by her own family, she was found by an elderly shepherd. He took her in and helped her heal. For eight years they were companions. Recently, he died. But before he died, he contacted me and then sent her on to me.”
He paused, waiting for the question he knew I would ask.
“She left her Wit-partner?” I was incredulous at such faithlessness.
Web shook his head. “The shepherd was not Witted. He was simply a man with a kind heart. And due in no small part to the efforts of the Farseer crown, he was able to reach out to the Old Blood community to find her a new home. No, don’t speak, let me finish my tale. Crows are social creatures. If she is forced to live a solitary life, she will go mad. Furthermore, with her striped wings, she cannot join other crows. They will turn on her for her differences. And finally, she does not seek a Wit-bond, only a human companion. For company and for protection.”
Kettricken dropped words into my silence. “It seems the perfect fit to both of us.”
I drew breath to respond and then sighed it out silently. I knew why Web could not take her on. Nor could Lady Kettricken be seen with a crow upon her shoulder: Battlefield scavenger and bird of ill omen, a crow companion would not do for her. I already knew I would not do it. I would find someone else, but for now, instead of outright refusing, I said, “I will think about it.”
“You should,” Web approved. “Even simple companionship with an animal is not a thing to take lightly. A crow can live a score of years, and it is not unheard of for one to reach thirty. Having met her, I judge you two would be well matched in temperament.”
Knowing what Web thought of my temperament, I was more convinced than ever that I wanted nothing to do with that bird. I would find her an appropriate companion. Perhaps Tallerman would not mind a crow in the stables at Withywoods. So I nodded without speaking.
They both took it as surrender. Kettricken poured more tea, and the next hour passed with us speaking of old times. Web told perhaps too many stories of Soar, but Kettricken and I both understood. And from those stories, it was natural that the talk turned to Old Blood, and Kettricken’s feeble command of the Wit-magic and what it might mean. What it had meant to her she shared more fully now: She had reached out to my wolf and he had accepted that faint connection. His friendship had sustained her more than I had realized.
Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Kettricken asked if Bee had either the Wit or the Skill. I cannot say why it was so unsettling for her to ask that question. Certainly I had few secrets left from either of them. Yet in some odd way, Bee felt like a secret, something private and precious that I did not want to share. I had to fight not to lie. I told them that as far as I could determine, my little daughter possessed neither of those magics in any strength. At most, she could sense the Skill in Nettle and me, but I received no sense of it from her. Then I added that, as young as she was, it was hard to tell such a thing.
Web quirked an eyebrow. “Usually the Wit manifests young in children. She has shown no predilection for bonding with an animal? No intrinsic understanding of their ways?”
I shook my head. “But, to be honest, I’ve kept her away from such dangers. I know what it is to bond too young and without guidance.”
Web frowned. “So there are no animals in her life?”
I hesitated, trying to decide what answer he would like to hear. I pushed myself toward the truth. “She has been learning to ride her horse. At an early age, when we first tried to teach her, she seemed uncomfortable with such an idea. Frightened, even. But of late, she has made good progress. She does not dislike animals. She likes kittens. The shepherd’s dog likes her.”
Web was nodding slowly. He looked at Kettricken when he said, “When she arrives, I would like to speak with her. If she has inherited Old Blood from her father, then the sooner we all know, the better for her to master her magic.”
And Kettricken inclined her head gravely, as if the permission were hers to give. I felt a wave of misgiving but decided that, for now, I would say nothing. I made a note to myself that Web had known Kettricken desired to bring Bee to Buckkeep before I did. With whom else had she discussed this? I needed to find what was behind her resolution. But discreetly. Boldly, I turned the conversation. “What of the princes? Has either Prosper or Integrity shown signs of the Wit or the Skill?”
Kettricken’s smooth brow furrowed. She took a breath and considered well her words before she replied, “We believe both princes have the Skill, their heritage magic as Farseers. But it does not seem that either one has a strong talent for it.” She did something with her eyes as she met my gaze. It was not a wink or an eye roll toward Web, but only the slightest flicker of movement that let me know this was not a topic she wished to discuss before the Witmaster. So, my erstwhile queen had learned discretion and secrecy. Perhaps Buckkeep had changed her as much as she had changed it.
She turned the talk to other topics and I let her. Web was garrulous as ever, and astute at getting other people to talk. I tried to stay to safe topics—sheep and orchards and the repairs I’d been making to Withywoods—but I am sure I told him far more about myself and my situation than I intended. The food was long gone and the last of the tea standing cold in our cups when Kettricken smiled at both of us and reminded us that others awaited her attention outside the audience chamber.
“Please tell Lord Golden that I will call on him this evening. Late, I fear, for there will be yet more celebration of the dark’s turning and I must attend. But when I may, I will come to him, and hope that he does not mind too much if I wake him. If he prefers not, leave a note for me to say he does not desire company.”
“Boredom besieges him in his infirmity. I daresay he will welcome the company.” I decided it for him. It would be good for him.
Web spoke. “And, Fitz, when can I expect a visit from you? I’d like to introduce you to the crow. I will not say that her company is a burden to me, but Soar does not regard her with welcome . . .”
“I understand. I will come tomorrow morning, if Lord Chade does not give me any other errands. I may have to spend my day in Buckkeep Town.” I rebuked myself for being reluctant to help him. I would go. I was confident that the crow would find me an unsuitable partner.
Web smiled at me. “Excellent. I’ve told her a great deal about you and shared Wit-knowledge of you. Within a day or so, I must be on my way. So she may find you before then. She’s eager to meet you.”
“And I as eager to meet her,” I replied politely. And with that I made my bows and left Lady Kettricken’s audience chamber wondering if Riddle had ever considered having a pet bird.