“At once,” I said, and Web nodded as I set off.
Of all the magics known to be possessed by men, the highest and noblest is that collection of talents known as the Skill. Surely it is no coincidence that through generations of Farseer rule, it often manifests in those destined to become our Kings and Queens. Strength of character and generosity of spirit, the blessings of both El and Eda, often accompany this hereditary magic of the Farseer line. It conveys to the user the ability to send his thoughts afar, to influence gently the thinking of his dukes and duchesses, or to strike fear in the heart of his enemies. Tradition tells us that many a Farseer ruler, his strength supplemented by the courage and talent of his Skill-coterie, could work wondrous cures on both body and mind as well as commanding both his ships at sea and our defenders upon the land. Queen Efficacious established six coteries for herself, placing one Skill-talented group in each duchy, and thus making the magic of the Skill available to each of her trusted dukes and duchesses during her enlightened reign, to the great benefit of all her people.
At the other end of the magical spectrum is the Wit, a base and corrupting magic that most often afflicts the lowborn who live and breed alongside the animals they cherish. This magic, once thought to be useful to goose girls and shepherds and stable boys, is now known to be dangerous not only to those who succumb to its influence but to all those around them as well. The mind-to-mind contamination of communicating with beasts leads to animalistic behaviors and appetites. While this writer laments that even nobly born youth have been known to fall prey to the attractions of beast-magic, I cannot sympathize beyond wishing that they be quickly discovered and eliminated before they can infect the innocent with their loathsome appetites.
On the Natural Magics of the Six Duchies, Scribe Sweet-tongue
I all but forgot our strange visitors as I hurried through the halls of Withywoods. My immediate fear was for Patience. She had fallen twice in the last month, but blamed it on the room “suddenly whirling all about me.” I did not run but my stride was as long as I could make it, and I did not knock when I reached her chambers but darted straight in.
Molly was sitting on the floor. Nettle knelt beside her and Patience stood, flapping a cloth at her. There was a pungent smell of sharp herbs in the room, and a little glass vial rolled on its side on the floor. Two serving women stood in a corner, obviously bullied away from her by Patience’s sharp tongue. “What happened?” I demanded.
“I fainted.” Molly sounded both annoyed and ashamed. “So silly of me. Help me up, Tom.”
“Of course,” I said, trying to hide my dismay. I reached down for her, and she leaned on me heavily as I drew her to her feet. She swayed slightly, but hid it by clutching my arm.
“I’m fine now. A bit too much whirling about on the dance floor, and perhaps too many glasses.”
Patience and Nettle exchanged glances, undeceived.
“Perhaps you and I should let our evening end. Nettle and the lads can perform the duties of the house.”
“Nonsense!” Molly exclaimed. Then she looked up at me, her eyes still a bit unfocused, and added, “Unless you are weary?”
“I am,” I lied expertly, concealing my rising alarm. “So many folk all in one place! And we have three more days of this, at least. There will be plenty of time for conversation and food and music.”
“Well. If you are tired, then, my love, I shall give way to you.”
Patience gave me the tiniest nod and added, “I’m going to do the same, my dears. Bed for these old bones, but tomorrow I shall wear my dancing slippers!”
“I am warned, then!” I agreed, and submitted to a slap from her fan. As I turned her mother toward the door, Nettle shot me a grateful look. I knew she would draw me aside for a quiet talk the next day, and knew also that I had no answers for her, other than that her mother and I were both getting older.
Molly leaned on my arm as we walked sedately through the halls. Our path led us past the merrymaking, where guests delayed us with brief bits of conversation, compliments on the food and music, and wishes for a good night. I could feel Molly’s exhaustion in her dragging steps and slow replies, but as ever she was Lady Molly to our guests. Finally I managed to pull her free of them. We limped slowly up the stairs with Molly leaning on me, and when we reached the door of our bedchamber she breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I don’t know why I’m so tired,” she complained. “I didn’t have that much to drink. And now I’ve spoiled everything.”