I spoke quietly. “I know little of what befell the Fool. Obviously he has been tortured, and he has come a long way to find us. What happened to Riddle was me. I was in haste and alarmed, and I used his strength to bring the Fool through the Skill-pillars. I have not drawn on someone for strength in such a situation before. I probably used more than he could easily spare, and I can only hope I have done no permanent harm to him.”
“My fault,” the Fool said quietly.
“No, mine. How could it possibly be your fault?” I spoke almost roughly.
“The strength. From him. Through you. To me.” He took a breath. “I should be dead. I’m not. I feel stronger than I have in months, despite … what happened today. You gave me some of his life.”
It made sense. Riddle had not only given me strength to bring Fool through the pillar, he had let me take life from him to give raw strength to the Fool. Gratitude warred with shame. I glanced at Riddle. He was not looking at me. Nettle sat by his bed on a low stool, holding both his hands in hers. Was there any possible way for me to repay that debt? I thought not.
I turned back to the Fool. He was blind. He could not see that as Kettricken worked carefully to clean the crooked fingers of his hands, tears were running down her cheeks. Those clever hands with those long fingers, juggling wooden balls or wisps of silk, making a coin appear, waggling insultingly or waving expressively to illustrate some tale he was telling. Reduced now to swollen knuckles and broken stick-fingers. “Not your fault,” Kettricken said quietly. “I suspect Riddle knew what he gave. He’s a giving man.” A long pause. “He deserves what he has earned,” she said, but gave no more indication of what she meant by that. Instead she sighed. “You need more than this. You need a hot bath, Fool. Is privacy still your obsession?”
He made a small sound that might have been a laugh. “Torture strips one of all dignity. Pain can make you shriek, or beg, or soil yourself. There is no privacy when your enemies own you and have no compunction, no human compunction at all about what they will do to you. So, among my friends, yes. Privacy is still an obsession. And a gift from them. A restoration in small part of what dignity I once had.” It was a long speech and it wheezed to an end.
Kettricken did not argue, or ask him if he could bathe himself. She simply asked, “Where would you be? Lord Golden’s old chambers? Fitz’s childhood bedroom? Chade’s old lair?”
“Are all those rooms empty?” I asked, surprised.
She looked at me levelly. “For him, other people can be moved.” She rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. “He got me to the Mountains. Alive. I will never forget that.”
He lifted a crooked hand to cover hers. “I will choose discretion. As I seldom have before. I would have quiet to recover, if I may. In Chade’s den. And be known neither as Lord Golden, nor as Fool.” He turned his hazed eyes and asked, “Do I smell food?”
He did. The apprentice healer was back, a rag wrapped around the bale of a lidded pot. The lid jiggled as she walked, letting brief wafts of beefy aroma fill the room. A serving boy came behind with bowls, spoons, and a basket of bread rolls. She stopped at Riddle’s bed to serve him, and I was relieved to see him recovered enough to be propped up in bed and offered hot food. He looked past Nettle, met my gaze, and gave me a crooked smile. Undeserved forgiveness. Friendship defined. I slowly nodded to him, trusting him to understand.
I knew it would be harder to win Nettle’s pardon.
The apprentice girl came to fill a bowl for the Fool. “Can you sit up to eat?” I asked him.
“Probably the only thing that could make me try,” he wheezed. As Kettricken and I lifted him and moved pillows to cushion him upright, he added, “I’m tougher than you think, Fitz. Dying, yes. But I’ll fight it off as long as I can.”
I did not reply to that until the apprentice and her assistant had finished serving the food. As they moved away, I leaned closer and suggested, “Eat as much as you can. The more strength you gain and the quicker you do it, the sooner we can attempt a Skill-healing for you. If you wish it.”
Kettricken held the spoon to his lips. He tasted it, sucked the broth in noisily, near-moaned with pleasure, and then begged, “Too slow. Let me drink from the bowl. I am so hungry.”
“It’s hot,” she warned him, but held the bowl to his mouth. His claw-like hands guided hers and he slurped the scalding soup from the edge of the bowl, trembling with his need to get nourishment inside him.
“It’s him,” Chade said. I looked up to see him standing at the foot of the Fool’s bed.