It wrung a laugh from the Queen that was half-sob. “I will return as soon as I may.”
“But not tonight,” he told her gently. “Already I am so weary I can scarce keep my eyes open. But soon, my Queen. Soon, if you please.”
She dropped him a curtsy, then fled in a rustling of long skirts and tapping heels. I watched her go.
“She has changed much, and not at all,” he observed.
“You sound much better.”
“Food. A warm bed. A clean face and hands. The company of friends. These things heal much.” He yawned suddenly, and then added with trepidation, “And Riddle’s strength. It is a peculiar thing, this borrowing of strength, Fitz. Not that different from how I felt when you put your own life back into me. It is a buzzing, restless energy inside me, a life borrowed rather than earned. My heart does not like it, but my body yearns for more of it. If it were a cup before me, I do not think I could resist the desire to drain it dry.” He took a slow breath and was quiet. But I could almost sense how he savored the sensation of extra life flowing through him. I recalled the battle madness that used to come on me, and how I would find myself fighting on, savagely and joyously, spending effort long after I knew my body was exhausted. It had been exhilarating. And the collapse that followed had been complete. That false strength, once burned, demanded repayment. I knew dread.
The Fool spoke again. “Still, I was not lying. Much as I long for a warm bath, I do not think I can remain awake much longer. I cannot recall the last time I was so warm, or my belly so full.”
“Perhaps I should take you up to Lady Thyme’s chamber, then.”
“You’ll carry me?”
“I have before. You weigh hardly anything and it seems the easiest thing to do.”
He was silent for a time. Then he said, “I think I can walk. At least part of the way.”
It puzzled me, but I didn’t argue with him. Almost as if our words had summoned him, a page entered the infirmary. He had flakes of snow still on his hair and shoulders, and carried a lantern. He looked around and then called, “Tom Badgerlock? I’ve come to fetch Tom Badgerlock.”
“I’m here,” I told him. As I turned to him, Nettle suddenly left Riddle’s bedside. She gripped my sleeve and pulled me to one side. She looked up at me, her face so like her mother’s in that moment that I felt Molly had returned from the grave to reproach me. “He says I’m not to hold you accountable, that he volunteered.”
“No. I asked him. He knew that if he didn’t help me, I’d try it alone. And I am accountable. And I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are.”
I bowed my head to that. After a moment, she added, “People love you far more than you deserve, Tom Badgerlock. But you don’t even believe that they love you at all.” I was still pondering that when she added, “And I am one of those people.”
“Nettle, I’m so—”
“Say it again and I’ll hit you. I don’t care who is watching. If I could ask one thing of you, it would be that you never say those stupid words again.” She looked away from me to the Fool. “He’s your friend, since childhood.” Her tone said she understood that he was a rare creature.
“He was. He is.”
“Well. Go take care of him, then. Riddle will be fine when he has rested.” She put her hands to her temples and rubbed them. “And Bee? My sister?”
“I left her with FitzVigilant. I think she’ll be fine. I don’t intend to be away for long.” As I said those words, I wondered how long I would be away. Would I stay here while the Fool rebuilt his strength until we could attempt a full Skill-healing? Should I try to go back in the morning, via the stones, and then return in a few days? I was torn. I longed to be in both places.
“If she’s with Lant, she’ll be fine.” I was not at all sure I agreed with her judgment, but it seemed a very poor time to tell her that. The relief in Nettle’s voice made me wonder if I had misjudged the young scribe. Then she woke guilt in me by adding, “We should send a bird to tell them that you arrived here safely.”
I glanced at the Fool. He had struggled to a sitting position and draped the blanket around his shoulders. He looked pathetically feeble, and older than me by a hundred years.
“I’ll do it,” Nettle continued before I could ask. “Do you want me to ask a guardsman to help you move your friend?”
“I think we can manage alone,” I said.
She nodded quietly. “I sensed that. You don’t want many folk to know he is here. For the life of me, I don’t know why. But I’ll respect your love of secrecy. Well, most of the servants are busy with the feast, so if you are cautious, you should be able to get him moved without being noticed.”