He nodded and despite his weariness, his mouth twisted with wry amusement. “I taught you that,” he said with satisfaction. His eyes met mine, and the fondness in them startled me. Was he becoming sentimental in his old age?
“Reporting to you, correctly and completely, was one of the first things you taught me,” I agreed. We were both silent for a moment, thinking of all else he had taught me.
I had rebelled and escaped the fate of being the king’s assassin. Chade had never wished to. He might no longer live like a hidden spider in the secret passageways of Buckkeep Castle, he might be hailed as Lord Chade now and openly advise King Dutiful, but I had no doubt that if King Dutiful thought a man needed killing, Chade could still rise to the occasion.
He was breathing more easily now. A tavern boy appeared, thunked down two heavy mugs of hot buttered rum, and waited. Chade smiled at me. I tipped my head at him, shook my head, and then with a faked show of reluctance found coins inside my belt and paid for our drinks. As the lad moved away, I asked Chade, “Was it harder than you expected to bring Riddle through the pillar with you?”
He didn’t deny it. “He took it better than I did,” Chade admitted. “Even if I did borrow strength from him to do it.” He lifted his steaming mug, drank, and sighed. His eyes above the rim roved the room again.
I nodded, and then had to ask, “How did you do it? He’s not Skilled.”
“No. But Nettle has taught him to lend strength to her when she needs it, and that creates a sort of opening … well, that’s not the right word. A handle? I’m not sure what to call it. Rather like a horse with a halter always on, there’s a place to clip a lead when he’s needed. He serves her in that capacity, as a source of strength. And in a few others as well.”
Bait I would not take. I took a sip of my rum. Nasty stuff, but warming all the same. “How can he lend Skill-strength if he’s not Skilled himself?”
He coughed and spoke hoarsely. “The same way Burrich loaned strength to your father. There was a deep personal bond and, like Riddle, he had a great reserve of physical strength. The Skill would help, of course, if he had it. But having served one person in that capacity, he was able to trust enough to allow another to tap him.”
I mulled that over. “Had you tried this experiment before?” I asked curiously.
He drew a deeper breath and shuddered abruptly. He was still chilled, but his body was starting to warm in the still air of the tavern. “No. I thought this a good opportunity. The weather was fine at Buckkeep. I’ve used the stones to travel here often. I don’t know why it was so taxing.”
I refrained from saying anything about his age. “Did you read of this in a scroll or tablet?” And was he about to propose a more extended and regular use of the Skill-pillars? I braced myself to dissuade him.
He nodded. His eyes weren’t on me but on Riddle, who was threading his way back to us, his own mug of rum held high. In his wake was a serving lad with a sling of firewood and a supply of extra candles. “He’ll prepare the room,” Riddle greeted us as he sat down and the boy headed up the stairs with his bucket. “Give him a few minutes to build up the fire, and then we’ll go up.” He transferred his gaze to me. “Tom. You look a bit better than the last time I saw you.”
“A bit,” I agreed. I reached across the table to grip wrists with him. I felt an odd little tingle when my hand touched his skin. He was Nettle’s. It was a strange sensation to recognize her touch on him, as intimate as if I had smelled her perfume on his clothing. The wolf in me sat up, alert. I wondered if Chade sensed it as clearly as I did. A thought uncoiled in the back of my mind, and I suspected I knew why the trip through the stones had been so arduous. Was Nettle riding with Riddle, hearing with his ears and seeing all he saw? It was an intuitive leap that made me believe her presence would complicate their journey. I kept the theory to myself. I looked into his eyes, wondering if I could glimpse my daughter there. I saw nothing, but his smile broadened. All in the space of a moment. “So. A taxing journey, in this storm and all,” I said.
I released Riddle’s grip and turned back to Chade. “Well, what brings you so far on such a foul night?”
“We’ll wait for the room with the fire,” he said to that, and picked up his mug again. Riddle’s glance caught mine and he lifted one eyebrow. He intended some sort of message for me, but I didn’t know what.
We sat in relative silence, letting the rum warm us while we waited. When the boy came down to the table and let us know the fire was burning well, Riddle tossed him a cut coin and we went upstairs. The room was at the end of the hall, sharing a chimney with the downstairs hearth. I was surprised that the horse traders hadn’t claimed it, but perhaps their purses were flatter than Chade’s. Riddle opened the door, and with a startling swiftness a little knife appeared in his hand. Seated on the end of one of the beds in the room was the girl who had earlier confused me. I took my cue from Chade, who did not seem startled at all. Nor did the girl seem alarmed at our sudden entrance. Head slightly lowered, she looked at us warily from the corner of her jade-green eyes.