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The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince

Robin Hobb

  Table of Contents


  Title Page

  Part One: The Wilful Princess

  Part Two: The Piebald Prince

  By Robin Hobb


  About the Publisher

  Part One

  The Wilful Princess

  At Redbird’s request do I, Felicity, write these words. He was a lettered man and could have under-taken this venture himself had fate allotted him time for it, but it did not. He earnestly put this task upon me, entreating that I be nothing but truthful, as befits the memory of a truth-speaking minstrel, and that I write in my clearest hand, for he wished that these words be plain to any who might read them, next year or a score of years hence. He charged me, too, to write of things only I can know so that in years to come no one can say that what they read here was but a minstrel’s fancy, a fillip added to history to make it a juicier tale.

  So I will write these words twice, as he did his song, and bind them together in two packets. One I will place in a hidden place known only to me, and the other I will hide where Redbird said it will likely remain well hidden for years: the scroll library at Buckkeep. And so the truth may be hidden for days or weeks or even decades, but eventually it will come out!

  Much of this tale is Redbird’s tale, but I will preface it with a story that not even he knows in full. For it is only when his tale and mine are told side by side that the full significance of them can be understood.

  Now Redbird was a minstrel and a truthsinger, one sworn to his king to sing only the true songs, the histories and the records of the realms. Not for him tales of dragons and pecksies and maidens enchanted to sleep for a hundred years. No, his task was to observe, and remember, and tell plain only and exactly what he saw. And so I shall honour his profession and his ways, for truth and truth only shall I trap here in my letters. And if it be a truth that ill pleases folk these days, at least it will remain somewhere for someone to find some day and know the true blood of the Farseer lineage.

  My part of the tale begins when I was a little girl. My mother and I were both there on the name-sealing day for Princess Caution Farseer. Queen Capable was radiant in an elegant gown of green and white that set off her dark eyes and hair. King Virile was dressed in well-tailored Buck blue, as was fitting. And the little princess was naked, as custom decreed.

  Princess Caution was six weeks old at the time, a well-formed child with a crop of curly dark hair. My mother, her wet-nurse, stood by with a heavily embroidered coverlet and a soft blanket to receive the child after the ceremony. I stood at her side, better dressed than I’d ever been in my life, holding several clean white flannels in the event of any accidents.

  I didn’t listen to the words of the sealing ceremony. At three years old, I was too intent on what I had heard was going to happen to the baby. She would be passed through fire, immersed in water, and buried in earth to seal her name to her and be sure that she would express the virtues of it. So, as the flames in the brazier leaped high and the queen held out her little daughter, I caught my breath in terror and anticipation.

  But the queen barely waved the child through the smoke. One flame might have licked at her rosy little heel, but the princess made no murmur of objection. I did. “But she didn’t go through the fire!”

  My mother set her hand on my shoulder. “Hush, Felicity,” she said gently, and backed the admonition with a sharp pinch.

  I clenched my lips and kept silent. Even at three, I well knew that a pinch was a warning of worse things to come if I disobeyed. I saw that the child was barely submersed in the water before the queen snatched her out of it, and that scarcely a trowelful of dry soil was dribbled down her back, never touching her head and brow at all. The little princess was startled but not weeping as the queen handed her over to her royal father. Virile lifted her high, and the nobility of the Six Duchies solemnly bowed before the Farseer heir. As her father lowered her, Caution began to wail, and Virile quickly handed her to her mother. Even more swiftly, the queen passed her to my mother. Wiped clean and wrapped in her blankets, Caution settled again, and my mother returned her to the queen.

  I remember little more of that day, save for a comment I heard passed from one duke to another. “She was under the water so briefly the bubbles didn’t even rise from her skin. Her name was not sealed to her.”

  The other shook her head. “Mark me well, Bearns. Her parents will not have the heart to raise her as sternly as they ought.”

  On the day that Princess Caution Farseer was born, my mother had weaned me. She should have weaned me when I was two, but when she learned that Queen Capable was with child she kept me at the breast to be sure that she would still be in milk when the royal infant was born. My grandmother had been Queen Capable’s wet-nurse, and had won the promise from her mother that when the time came her own daughter would likewise serve her family. It was our great good luck that Lady Capable grew up to wed King Virile. Queen Capable might have forgotten her mother’s promise, but my grandmother and mother certainly did not. The women of our family have long had a tradition of providing for their daughters as best they may. We are not a wealthy family nor of noble lineage, but many a high-born child has been nourished on our rich milk.

  I lived at Buckkeep with my mother during the years she suckled Princess Caution. My mother saw to it that from the first day the princess was entrusted to her care, I served her royal highness. At first, my duties were small and simple: to fetch a warm washcloth, to bring a clean napkin, to carry a basket of soiled little garments down to the washerwomen. But as I grew I became the princess’s servant more than my mother’s helper. I held her hands for her first toddling steps, interpreted her babyish lisping for adults too stupid to understand her, and helped her in all ways that an older sister might help a younger one. If she wanted a toy, I fetched it for her. If she finished her bread and milk and wanted more, I gave her mine. For my mother whispered into my ear every night before I slept, “Serve her in all things, for if she makes you hers, then you have made her yours as well. Then, perhaps, as you grow, your life will be easier than mine has been.”

  So, from a very early age, I gave way to the princess in all things. I soothed her hurts, quieted her tantrums, and indulged her in every small way that I could. It was me she wanted to cut her meat, and me who tied her slippers. My bed was beside my mother’s, in the room adjacent to the Princess Caution’s nursery. When she had a restless night, an evil dream or a teething fever, I often slept in her big soft bed beside her and she took comfort from my presence. I became invisible, as much a part of the princess as her little green cloak or her lacy white nightdress.

  Queen Capable was a doting but not attentive mother. She adored the sweet, calm moments with her baby, but quickly surrendered the child to my mother’s care the moment Caution became soiled, fractious or trying. That suited my mother well. She always did her best to give the queen exactly the experience of her child that she wished to have. I marked well how this benefited my mother and me and in my childish way I mimicked this behavior with the little princess.

  Caution was not sickly, but neither was she a hearty infant: even when she could hold her own spoon she was fussy about what she ate. The only food that she never refused was the milk of my mother’s breast. Perhaps that was why she was allowed to nurse long past the age at which most children are weaned, but the more likely reason was that the little princess was never refused anything she wanted. She had only to shed a single tear and all past rules were overturned that she might be the exception. She was over four years old when finally she gave up the teat, and only because my mother caught summer fever and he
r milk dried up.

  Nobler women than we had long been waiting a chance to tend the little princess and win her regard. As soon as it was known that my mother’s milk was gone and Caution weaned, a better-born nanny was brought in to take my mother’s place, and nobler playmates offered to her.

  When I returned with my mother to our cottage and the stony fields my father tended, all seemed strange to me. I had grown up at Buckkeep and had only the vaguest memories of my own home. I had seen my father and elder brother at intervals, but did not know either of them in a familiar, comfortable way. They were too busy with the chores of our farm to have much time for me. My mother turned her efforts to getting with child again, for only then would her milk return and another wet-nurse position be offered to her. It was her career and what she expected to do for as long as she could bear a child or give milk to someone else’s.

  I was not glad to be there. Our house was small and our living conditions rude and rustic after the comforts of Buckkeep. No rug shielded me from the rough floor; no tapestry blocked the wind that crept through the plank walls of the loft where I slept. Food was simple and my portion smaller than when I had been the princess’s table mate, setting her an example of how to eat well and heartily. Nonetheless, when on the third day after our return a messenger arrived to fetch me back to Buckkeep, I was not pleased to go. I heard with satisfaction that Princess Caution missed me, that she wanted nothing to do with other playmates, that she would not sleep at night but had cried and fussed ever since I had left. The princess had demanded that I be returned to her, and the queen herself had sent the messenger to fetch me back. But I had been at my mother’s side for nearly every day since I had been born, and I did not wish to be separated from her.

  I was not quite seven and I dared to yowl when my mother announced that I would be glad to go. We left the messenger staring while my mother dragged me up to the loft to pack my clothes, and brush and braid my hair. It was there that she gave me the sharp slap that quietened me. As I sobbed and she folded my clothes and tucked them into a bag, she gave me the most succinct advice surely that ever a mother gave a small daughter. “You are crying when you should be rejoicing. This is your chance, Felicity, and possibly the only one I can ever give you. Stay with me, and you will have to marry young, bear often, and nurse children until your breasts sag flat and your back never ceases aching. But go with the messenger now, and you have the chance to become the princess’s confidante and playmate, despite our low birth. Make much of her at all times, always take her side, intervene and intercede for her. You are a clever girl. Learn everything she is taught. Make first claim on her cast-offs. Be indispensable. Perform every humble task for her that others disdain. Do all these things, my little one, and who knows what you can make for yourself and of yourself? Now, dry your tears. I hope you will remember and heed my words long after you’ve forgotten all else about me. I will come to see you as soon as I can. But until then remember that I loved you enough to put you on this path. Give me a hug and a kiss, for I will surely miss you, my clever one.”

  Slapped, counselled and kissed farewell, I followed her down the ladder from the loft. The messenger had brought a pony for me to ride back to Buckkeep. That was my first experience astride a horse, and the beginning of my life-long distrust of the creatures.

  By the next day, I was back at Buckkeep, reinstalled in the small servant’s chamber off the princess’s own bedroom, and back into Princess Caution’s daily routine. That night, the queen herself sat at the foot of her daughter’s bed while I stood beside her and sang lullaby after lullaby until Princess Caution drowsed off. For that service, I received a queenly smile, a pat on the head and a scowl from the royal nursemaid who had been displaced from the chamber next to the princess’ own. It was the first time I found myself squarely at odds with my fellow servants, but it was not to be the last.

  I never lived in my father’s house again, but my parents did not forget me. Every few years, my mother came to court as a wet-nurse, for she had found favour with the noble ladies for her calm and competent ways. We often found ways to see each another. She guided me in how I managed the princess and gave me much wise advice. Whenever I thanked her she would say, “There will come a time when I cannot nurse a baby any more, and then life will be harder for me. I hope that when my fortune turns, you will remember that I gave you up to put you on a better path than mine.” And always I would promise that I would.

  “The baby princess grew, as all children grow, and became beautiful, as some children do, and developed a stubborn will of her own such as most parents most heartily wish no child of theirs ever does.” So the minstrels have sung of her, but it is not fair to think she spoiled herself. Caution was a princess, and her mother was a queen. And Caution was the only green and growing sprig on the royal tree, and so she was indulged. Despite being Caution’s favourite companion, I was deemed too young to care for her alone. The nursemaid bore the brunt of Caution’s wilfulness. Flung dishes and shrieking tantrums were daily events. The nursemaid strove to take a firm line with the princess, but the moment the royal heir was banished to scream and kick alone, I was at her side, to soothe and comfort her. Did I know then that I was encouraging her wilfulness? Not on a reasoning level, but I recognized that I could be to her what no one else was. I can only defend myself by saying that I regarded the princess as mine in a way that she belonged to no one else. I resented it when others sought to discipline her or force her into any action. I loved her: she was my baby, my sibling and my future. So I suppose that in some ways I was partially responsible for her headstrong ways.

  At first, it was only in small things that Caution demanded her way. She would wear her yellow skirts every single day, not her green ones or her red ones or even her blue ones with the white ruffles all round. Her yellow ones only would she wear, even if they were muddied and needed mending. Nor would she accept a different set of yellow skirts, no – not even if the fabric had been woven by the same weaver and the hems stitched by the same seamstress. Only her first yellow skirts would she wear. So the laundress and the seamstress toiled by night so that the yellow skirts were presentable every morning. I trotted willingly down the stairs every night to the washing court bearing the yellow skirts, and no one had to wake me at dawn to again make that journey to bring my princess the freshly washed and pressed skirts. I saw to it that it was always from me that she received them. Whenever I could, I took credit for any good thing that came to her.

  As she got older and her presence was required more often in formal settings, it was I who fastened her slippers and fluffed her skirts and smoothed her jet-black hair before she went out the door. And when, as often happened, the occasion ended in a royal tantrum by the over-tired child, I was the one they sent for, to coax and pet her back into a cooperative frame of mind and get her to bed.

  As she grew, Princess Caution demanded her way in larger things. From refusing any skirts but her yellow ones, she went to demanding a cascade of stylish and elaborate garments. She would not eat the meat of cattle nor swine nor fowl, but only on venison would she dine, morning, noon and night, winter or summer. And so the huntsman must hunt and the butcher must dress his kills all year round to make sure her meals pleased her, even when the season was not right for the taking of a deer. Her father, taking a stand with her at last, declared that perhaps his daughter would be more reasonable if she saw the extent of the work that her habits required. Thus, she was less than ten when he took her on her first hunt. It troubled me, for I did not like horses and did not ride with pleasure. But Princess Caution insisted I must accompany her and, as I always did, I gave way to her.

  If her father had thought to dissuade Caution, that hunt was the wrong tack to take. She rode well, as she had from the first time she was set on a horse, and kept up easily with the lead riders. She saw the stag brought to bay, saw the dogs bring him down and be whipped off him, and took no discouragement from any of the wild and bloody scene. I was spared that
sight for I had lagged far behind the pack and only caught up with the party as they were preparing to return home. But I might as well have been there, because for days afterwards the princess talked of little else.

  In one regard the king succeeded, for his daughter became a huntress in her own right, and expanded her diet to include any game that she herself brought down. So she provided pheasant and duck for the table, venison in plenty and even wild boar as she grew stronger and more capable. Only when hunting did she abandon my company, but as it put her often at her father’s side and among his nobles, the king rejoiced in his offspring’s new-found interest. So I took care not to interfere, even if it did put her outside my influence. Instead, I became the willing listener for every exploit she cared to share with me. Indeed, I think that my own clumsiness on horseback and squeamishness at the blood delighted her. For so long I had been her elder and always the better at whatever we did. When I saw how pleased she was to have bested me, I took care never to compete with her, but always expressed my wonder at all she could do.

  I realized then that she was growing up. As the difference in our stations became more and more clear to her, I took care not to overstep my place. And so, although I attended her lessons with her, and cut her pens and mixed her ink, I was careful that she never discovered that I could both read and cipher as well as she could. I took care to study at night, borrowing her scrolls while she slept, ensuring they were always back on her desk as if they had never been touched before dawn. It was the same when she received her lessons in history and later, in diplomacy and deportment. By then she was a young woman, wearing a simple tiara to show her rank. I sat on a low stool at her feet as the minstrels who sang the histories performed for her. I listened to her father’s ministers as they lectured her on the dangers of Chalced and the intricacies of striking advantageous trade agreements with Bingtown. I learned what she did, and applied it, not to foreign powers, but to the shifting tides of influence within the court. I never forgot my common birth and lack of standing, but that does not mean I did not find ways to circumvent these obstacles.