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Fools Errand, Page 2

Robin Hobb

  “Five!” I exclaimed in astonishment.

  Chade grinned. “Five boys, and all as respectful and deferential to their father as any man could wish. Not at all like Nettle. She has mastered that black look of Burrich's and gives it right back to him when he scowls at her. Which is seldom. I won't say she's his favorite, but I think she wins more of his favor by standing up to him than all the boys do with their earnest respect. She has Burrich's impatience, and his keen sense of right and wrong. And all your stubbornness, but perhaps she learned that from Burrich as well. ”

  “You saw Burrich then?” He had raised me, and now he raised my daughter as his own. He'd taken to wife the woman I'd seemingly abandoned. They both thought me dead. Their lives had gone on without me. To hear of them mingled pain with fondness. I chased the taste of it away with Sandsedge brandy.

  “It would have been impossible to see Nettle, save that I saw Burrich also. He watches over her like, well, like her father. He's well. His limp has not improved with the years. But he is seldom afoot, so it seems to bother him little. It is horses with him, always horses, as it always was. ” He cleared his throat. “You do know that the Queen and I saw to it that both Ruddy's and Sooty's colts were given over to him? Well, he's founded his livelihood on those two stud horses. The mare you unsaddled, Ember, I got her from him. He trains as well as breeds horses now. He will never be a wealthy man, for the moment he has a coin to spare, it goes for another horse or to buy more pasturage. But when I asked him how he did, he told me, 'Well enough. ' ”

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  “And what did Burrich say of your visit?” I asked. I was proud I could speak with an unchoked voice.

  Chade grinned again, but there was a rueful edge to it. “After he got over the shock of seeing me, he was most courteous and welcoming. And as he walked me out to my horse the next morning, which one of the twins, Nim I think, had saddled for me, he quietly promised that he'd kill me before he'd brook any interference with Nettle. He spoke the words regretfully, but with great sincerity. I didn't doubt them from him, so I don't need them repeated from you. ”

  “Does she know Burrich is not her father? Does she know anything of me?” Question after question sprang to my mind. I thrust them away. I hated the avidity with which I had asked those two, but I could not resist. It was like the Skill addiction, this hunger to know, finally know these things after all the years.

  Chade looked aside from me and sipped his brandy. “I don't know. She calls him Papa. She loves him fiercely, with absolutely no reservations. Oh, she disagrees with him, but it is about things rather than about Burrich himself. I'm afraid that with her mother, things are stormier. Nettle has no interest in bees or candles, but Molly would like to see her daughter follow her in her trade. As stubborn as Nettle is, think Molly will have to be content with a son or two instead. ” He glanced out the window. He added quietly, “We did not speak your name when Nettle was present. ”

  I turned my cup in my hands. “What things do interest her?”

  “Horses. Hawks. Swords. At fifteen, I expected at least some talk of young men from her, but she seems to have no use for them. Perhaps the woman in her hasn't wakened yet, or perhaps she has too many brothers to have any romantic illusions about boys. She would like to run away to Buckkeep and join one of the guard companies. She knows Burrich was Stablemaster there once. One of the reasons I went to see him was to make Kettricken's offer of that position again. Burrich refused it. Nettle cannot understand why. ”

  “I do. ”

  “As do I. But when visited, I told him that could make a place for Nettle there, even if he chose not to go. She could page for me, if nothing else, though I am sure Queen Kettricken would love to have her. Let her see the way of a keep and a city, let her have a taste of life at Court, told him. Burrich turned it down instantly, and seemed almost offended that I'd offered it. ”

  Without intending, I breathed out softly in relief. Chade took another sip of his brandy and sat regarding me. Waiting. He knew my next question as well as I did. Why? Why did he seek out Burrich, why did he offer to take Nettle to Buckkeep? I took more of my own brandy and considered the old man. Old. Yes, but not as some men get old. His hair had gone completely white, but the green of his eyes seemed to burn all the fiercer beneath those snowy locks. I wondered how hard he fought his body to keep the stoop in his shoulders from becoming a curl, what drugs he took to prolong his vigor and what those drugs cost him in other ways. He was older than King Shrewd, and Shrewd was all these many years dead. Bastard royalty of the same lineage as myself, he seemed to thrive on intrigue and strife as I had not. I had fled the court and all it contained. Chade had chosen to stay, and make himself indispensable to yet another generation of Farseers.

  “So. And how is Patience these days?” I chose my question with care. News of my father's wife was well wide of what I wished to know, but I could use his answer to venture closer.

  “Lady Patience? Ah, well, it has been some months since I have seen her. Over a year, now that I think of it. She resides at Tradeford, you know. She rules there, and quite well. Odd, when you think of it. When she was indeed queen and wed to your father, she never asserted herself. Widowed, she was well content to be eccentric Lady Patience. But when all others fled, she became queen in fact if not by title at Buckkeep. Queen Kettricken was wise to give her a domain of her own, for she never again could have abided at Buckkeep as less than queen. ”

  “And Prince Dutiful?”

  “As like his father as he can be,” Chade observed, shaking his head. I watched him closely, wondering how the old man intended the remark. How much did he know? He frowned as he continued. “The Queen needs to let him out a bit. The folk speak of Dutiful as they did of your father, Chivalry. 'Correct to a fault,' they say and almost have the truth of it, I fear. ”

  There had been a very slight change in his voice. “Almost?” I asked quietly.

  Chade gave me a smile that was almost apologetic. “Of late the boy has not been himself. He has always been a solitary lad but that goes with being the sole prince. He has always had to keep his position in mind, always had to take care that he was not seen to favor one companion over another. It has made him introspective. But recently he has shifted to a darker temperament. He is distracted and moody, so caught up in his inner thoughts that he seems completely unaware of what is going on in the lives of those around him. He is not discourteous or uncaring; at least, not deliberately. But . . . ”

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  “He's what, fourteen?” I asked. “He does not sound so different from Hap, of late. I've been thinking much the same things about him; that I need to let him out a bit. It's time he got out and learned something new, from someone other than myself. ”

  Chade nodded. “I think you are absolutely correct. Queen Kettricken and I have reached the same decision about Prince Dutiful. ”

  His tone made me suspect I had just run my head into the snare. “Oh?” I said carefully.

  “Oh?” Chade mimicked me, and then leaned forward to tip more brandy into his glass. He grinned, letting me know the game was at an end. “Oh, yes. You've no doubt guessed it. We would like to have you come back to Buckkeep and instruct the Prince in the Skill. And Nettle too, if Burrich can be persuaded to let her go and if she has any aptitude for it. ”

  “No. ” I said the word quickly before I could be seduced. I am not sure how definitive my answer sounded. No sooner had Chade broached the idea than desire for it surged in me. It was the answer, the sosimple answer after all these years. Train up a new coterie of Skillusers. I knew Chade had the scrolls and tablets relating to the Skill magic. Galen the Skillmaster and then Prince Regal had wrongfully withheld them from us, so many years ago. But now I could study them, I could learn more and I could train up others, not as Galen had done, but correctly. Prince Dutiful would have a Skilled coterie to aid and protect him, and Iwould have an end to
my loneliness. There would be someone to reach back when I reached out.

  And both my children would know me, as a person if not as their father.

  Chade was as sly as ever. He must have sensed my ambivalence. He left my denial hanging alone in the air between us. He held his cup in both hands. He glanced down at it briefly, putting me sharply in mind of Verity. Then he looked up again, his green eyes meeting mine without hesitation. He asked no questions, he made no demands. All he had to do was wait.

  Knowing his tactic did not shield me against it. “You know I cannot. You know all the reasons I should not. ”

  He shook his head slightly. “Not really. Why should Prince Dutiful be denied his birthright as a Farseer?” More softly he added, “Or Nettle?”

  “Birthright?” I tried for a bitter laugh. “It's more like a family disease, Chade. It's a hunger, and when you are taught how to satisfy it, it becomes an addiction. An addiction that can become strong enough eventually to set your feet on the paths that lead past the Mountain Kingdom. You saw what became of Verity. The Skill devoured him. He turned it to his own ends; he made his dragon and poured himself into it. He saved the Six Duchies. But even if there had been no Red Ships to battle, Verity would eventually have gone to the Mountains. That place called him. It is the ordained end for any Skilled one. ”

  “I understand your fears,” he confessed quietly. “But I think you are wrong. I believe Galen deliberately instilled that fear in you. He limited what you learned, and he battered fear into you. But I've read the Skillscrolls. I haven't deciphered all that they tell, but I know it is so much more than simply being able to communicate across a distance. With the Skill, a man can prolong his own life and health. It can enhance a speaker's powers of persuasion. Your training . . . I don't know how far it went, but I'll wager Galen taught you as little as he could. ” I could hear the excitement building in the old man's voice, as if he spoke of a hidden treasure. “There is so much to the Skill, so much. Some scrolls imply that the Skill can be used as a healing tool, not only to find out exactly what is wrong with an injured warrior, but actually to encourage the healing of those hurts. A strong Skilled one can see through another's eyes, hear what that other hears and feels. And ”

  “Chade. ” The softness of my voice cut him off. I had known a moment of outrage when he admitted he'd read the scrolls. He'd had no right, I'd thought, and then known that if his Queen gave them to him to read, he had as much right as anyone. Who else should read them? There was no Skillmaster anymore. That line of ability had died out. No. I had killed it. Killed off, one by one, the last trained Skillusers, the last coterie ever created at Buckkeep. They had been faithless to their King, so I had destroyed them and the magic with them. The part of me that was rational knew that it was magic better left dead. “I am no Skillmaster, Chade. It's not only that my knowledge of the Skill is incomplete, but that my talent was erratic. If you've read the scrolls, then I'm sure you've discovered for yourself, or heard from Kettricken, that using elfbark is the worst thing a Skilled one can do. It suppresses or kills the talent. I've tried to stay away from it; I don't like what it does to me. But even the bleakness it brings on is better than the Skillhunger. Sometimes I've used elfbark steadily for days at a time, when the craving was bad. ” I looked away from the concern on his face. “Whatever talent I ever had is probably stunted beyond recall now. ”

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  His voice was soft as he observed, “It seems to me that your continued craving would indicate the opposite, Fitz. I'm sorry to hear you've been suffering; we truly had no idea. I had assumed the Skillhunger would be like a man's craving for drink or smoke, and that after a period of enforced abstinence, the longing would grow less. ”

  “No. It does not. Sometimes it lies dormant. Monthspass, even years. Then, for no reason I can tell, it stirs to life again. ” I squeezed my eyes shut for an instant. Talking about it, thinking about it was like prodding at a boil. “Chade. I know that this is why you came all this way to find me. And you've heard me say no. Now can we speak of other things? This conversation . . . pains me. ”

  For a time he was silent. There was a false heartiness in his voice when he abruptly said, “Of course we can. I told Kettricken that I doubted you'd fall in with our plan. ” He gave a brief sigh. “I'll simply have to do the best I can with what I've gleaned from the scrolls. Now. I've had my say. What would you like to hear about?”

  “You can't mean that you'll try to teach Dutiful the Skill from what you've read in some old scrolls?” I was suddenly on the edge of anger.

  “You leave me no choice,” he pointed out pleasantly.

  “Do you grasp the danger you'd be exposing him to? The Skill draws a man, Chade. It pulls at the mind and heart like a lodestone. He will want to be one with it. If the Prince yields to that attraction for even an instant while he's learning, he'll be gone. And there will be no Skilled one to go after him, to put him back together and drag him from the current. ”

  I could tell from the expression on Chade 's face that he had no understanding of what I was telling him. He only replied stubbornly, “What I read in the scrolls is that there is danger to leaving one with a strong Skilltalent completely untrained. In some cases, such youngsters have begun to Skill almost instinctively, but with no concept of the danger or how to control it. I should think that even a little knowledge might be better than to leave the young Prince in total ignorance. ”

  I opened my mouth to speak, then shut it again. I drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I won't be drawn into it, Chade. I refuse. Years ago I promised myself. I sat by Will and watched him die. I didn't kill him. Because I'd promised myself I was no longer an assassin, and no longer a tool.

  I won't be manipulated and I won't be used. I've made enough sacrifices. I think I've earned this retirement. And if you and Kettricken disagree with that and no longer wish to provide me with coin, well, I can cope with that as well. " As well to have that out in the open. The first time I'd found a bag of coins by my bed after Starling had visited, I was insulted. I'd hoarded the affront for months until she visited me again. She'd only laughed at me, and told me they weren't largesse from her for my services, if that's what I'd thought, but a pension from the Six Duchies. That was when I'd forced myself to admit that whatever Starling knew of me, Chade knew as well. He was also the source of the fine paper and good inks she sometimes brought. She probably reported to him each time she returned to Buckkeep. I'd told myself it didn't bother me. But now I wondered if all those years of keeping track of me had been Chade waiting for me to be useful again. I think he read my face.

  “Fitz, Fitz, calm down. ” The old man reached across the table to pat my hand reassuringly. “There's been no talk of anything like that. We are both well aware of not only what we owe you, but also what the whole Six Duchies owes you. As long as you live, the Six Duchies will provide for you. As for Prince Dutiful's training, put it out of your head. It's not truly your concern at all. ”

  Once again, I wondered uneasily how much he knew. Then I steeled myself. “As you say, it's not truly my concern. All I can do is warn you to be cautious. ”

  “Ah, Fitz, have you ever known me to be otherwise?” His eyes smiled at me over the rim of his cup.

  I set it aside, but forbidding myself the idea was like tearing a tree up by the roots. Part of it was my fear that Chade's inexperienced tutelage of the young Prince would lead him into danger. But by far the biggest part of my desire to teach a new coterie was simply so that I could furnish myself with a way to satisfy my own craving. Having recognized that, there was no way I could in good conscience inflict this addiction on another generation.

  Chade was as good as his word. He spoke no more about Skilling. Instead, we talked for hours of all the folk I had once known at Buckkeep and what had become of them. Blade was a grandfather, and Lacey was plagued with aching joints that had finally forced her to set her endless tatting
aside. Hands was the Stablemaster at Buckkeep now. He had married an inland woman with fiery red hair and a temper to match. All of their children had red hair. She kept Hands on a short leash, and according to Chade, he seemed only happier for it. Of late, she was nagging him to return to Farrow, her homeland, and he seemed prone to indulge her; thus Chade's trip to see Burrich and offer him his old position again. So on and on, he peeled callus away from my memories and brought all the old faces fresh to my mind again. It made me ache for Buckkeep and I could not forbear to ask my questions. When we ran out of folk to gossip about, I walked him about my place as if we were two old aunties visiting one another. I snowed him my chickens and my birch trees, my garden and my walks. I showed him my work shed, where I made the dyes and colored inks that Hap took to market for me. Those, at least, surprised him. “I brought you inks from Buckkeep, but now I wonder if your own are not the better. ” He patted my shoulder, just as he once had when I mixed a poison correctly, and the old wash of pleasure at his pride in me rushed through me.

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  I showed him probably far more than I intended. When he looked at my herb beds, he no doubt marked the preponderance of sedatives and painkillers among my drug plants. When I showed him my bench on the cliffs overlooking the sea, he even said quietly, “Yes, Verity would have liked this. ” But despite what he saw and guessed, he spoke no more of the Skill.

  We stayed up late that night, and I taught him the basics of Kettle's stone game. Nighteyes grew bored with our long talk and went hunting. I sensed a bit of jealousy from the wolf, but resolved to settle it with him later. When we set our game aside, I turned our talk to Chade himself and how he fared. He smilingly conceded that he enjoyed his return to court and society. He spoke to me, as he seldom had before, of his youth. He'd led a gay life before his mishandling of a potion had scarred him and made him so ashamed of his appearance that he had retreated into a secretive shadow life as a king's assassin. In these late years, he seemed to have resumed the life of that young man who had so enjoyed dancing and private dinners with witty ladies. I was glad for him, and spoke mostly in jest when I asked, “But how then do you fit in your quiet work for the crown, with all these other assignations and entertainments?”