“It has been so long since anyone touched me with kindness.”
“Close your eyes,” I bade him hoarsely, for I could not bear his blind stare. I wiped his face a third time. Dirt clung in every line of his face. Dried mucus caked his eyelids. I wanted to weep with pity for him. Instead I wrung out the cloth again. Behind me, folk were wrangling in the most courteous possible way. Their very politeness seemed infuriating. I wanted to turn and bellow at them all to leave or be quiet. The hopelessness of my task was becoming clear to me. He was stronger than I had first judged him, but his body was too broken. He had no reserves to burn. I’d brought him here in the hope of a Skill-healing, but as I slowly washed first one crumpled hand and then the other, the magnitude of his ills engulfed me. Unless we could rebuild his strength before we began, he would not survive a healing. And if we did not heal him soon, he would not live long enough to rebuild his strength. My thoughts chased themselves in a circle. I’d risked all of us to bring him to a healing he could not survive.
Kettricken was suddenly at my elbow. Ever gracious, she thanked the gawking apprentice healer before sending her on her way. Behind me the room had quieted, and I sensed that Nettle had won her way. The healers had left and her Skill-coterie was gathering around Riddle’s bed. Chade was talking about having seen such things before and assuring her that Riddle would be fine, he just needed a rich meal and a few days of sleep to put him right. Chade was arguing against Skill-intervention, favoring food and rest instead. Riddle had loaned more strength than he could afford, but he was a strong man, a doughty man, and she need not fear for him.
A small part of my mind wondered just how Chade knew this. How ruthlessly had he used Thick? Or was it Steady he had drained, and in what pursuit? Later. I would get to the bottom of that later. I knew from my experience with King-in-Waiting Verity that he was probably right. In my panic over the Fool, I had not given a thought to the possibility that I might so drain Riddle as to leave him witless and drooling. My friend and my daughter’s mate. I owed them both apologies. Later.
Because now Nettle had moved to the Fool’s bedside. She ran her eyes over him as if he were a horse she were considering buying. She glanced once at me and then away, in a manner curiously similar to the way Bee avoided my eyes. She spoke to a young woman who had come to stand at her side. “What do you think?” she asked her, in the manner of a teacher to a student.
The woman took a breath, extended her hands, and moved them slowly over the Fool’s body without touching him. The Fool became very still, as if he sensed and resented her untouching of him. The woman’s hands made a second pass over him. Then she shook her head. “I see old damage that we may or may not be able to better heal. He does not appear to have any fresh injuries that put him in immediate danger of death. There is much that is both odd and wrong about his body. But I do not judge him in need of immediate Skill-intervention. In fact, thin as he is, I suspect it would do more harm than good.” She wrinkled her nose then, and sniffed, the first sign that she felt any distaste for her patient. She stood awaiting Nettle’s judgment of her words.
“I agree,” the Skillmistress said softly. “You and the others may go now. I thank you for convening so swiftly.”
“Skillmistress,” the woman acknowledged her with a bow. Nettle moved with her, returning to Riddle’s bedside as the rest of the healing coterie quietly left the infirmary.
Kettricken was regarding the ruined man on the bed with close attention. The tips of her fingers covered her mouth as she bent over him. Then she straightened and fixed me with anxious blue eyes. “It isn’t him, is it?” she begged. “It’s not the Fool.”
He stirred slightly, and when he opened his sightless eyes, she flinched. He spoke in pieces. “Would that Nighteyes.… were here to … vouch for me. My Queen.”
“Queen no longer. Oh, Fool.”
There was a hint of the old mockery in his voice as he said, “My Queen, still. And I am still … a fool.”
She seated herself gracefully on a low stool on the other side of the Fool’s bedside. She did not look at me as she began to carefully fold back the elaborate sleeves of her gown. “What happened to them?” she demanded of me. She took a clean cloth from the foot of the bed, dipped it in the water, and with no sign of distaste lifted his hand and began to wash it. A memory long buried rose to the top of my mind. Queen Kettricken, washing the bodies of the slain Forged Ones, making them our own people again and restoring them before burial. She had never hesitated.