“Could it be that simple?” Nettle asked in wonder.
Kettricken spoke from behind me. “Does it involve Chade? Then simple? Absolutely not. That man never makes anything simple.” I turned to regard my erstwhile Queen and despite the gravity of our situation, I could not help but smile at her. She stood straight and regal as ever. As always, the King’s mother was dressed with a simplicity that would have looked more appropriate on a serving girl, save that she wore it with such dignity. And power. Her fair hair, gone to early silver, flowed unbound down her back, past the shoulders of her Buckkeep-blue robe. Another anomaly. She had encouraged the Six Duchies to reach out in trade, and in my lifetime I had seen our kingdom embrace all that the wider world had to offer. Exotic foods and seasoning from the Spice Islands, peculiar styles of dress from Jamaillia and the lands beyond, and foreign techniques for working with glass, iron, and pottery had altered every aspect of life in Buckkeep Castle. The Six Duchies shipped out wheat and oats, iron ore and ingots, Sandsedge brandy and the fine wines from the inland duchies. Timber from the Mountain Kingdom became lumber that in turn we shipped to Jamaillia. We prospered and embraced change. Yet here was my former queen, immune to the changes she had encouraged, dressed as simply and old-fashioned as a servant from my childhood, without even a diadem in her hair to mark her rank as the King’s mother.
She crossed to me, and I rose to accept her firm embrace. “Fitz,” she said by my ear. “Thank you. Thank you for coming, and for taking great risk by coming so swiftly. When I heard that Dutiful had conveyed to Nettle that you must come at once, I was horrified. And full of hope. How selfish we are, to tear you from your well-earned peace and demand that you once more come to our aid.”
“You are always welcome to any help I can bring you.” Any lingering irritation I had felt for how I had been pressed to use the stone pillar vanished at her words. It was her gift. Queen Kettricken had always acknowledged the sacrifices people made in service to the Farseer throne. In exchange she had always been willing to surrender her own comfort and safety for those loyal to her. In that moment her gratitude seemed a fair exchange for the danger I had faced.
She released me and stepped back. “So. Do you think you can help him?”
I shook my head regretfully. “Chade has put a block on himself, similar to the way that Chivalry sealed Burrich off from the Skill. He drew on Steady’s Skill-strength to do it. If we could break through it, we might be able to use our joined Skill-magic to aid his body in healing itself. But he has locked us out, and lacks the awareness to either permit us in or to heal himself.”
“I see. And how is he?”
“Losing strength. I feel an ebbing in his vitality even in the short time I’ve been here.”
She flinched at my words, but I knew she prized honesty. She opened her hands and gestured to all of us. “What can we do?”
King Dutiful spoke. “Little to nothing. We can call the healers back, but they only seem to squabble with one another. One says to cool him with wet cloths, another to light the hearth and cover him with blankets. One wanted to bleed him. I do not think any of them truly has a remedy for this type of injury. If we do nothing, I suspect he will die before two more nights go by.” He lifted off his crown, ran his hands through his hair, and set it back on his head slightly ajar. “Oh, Chade,” he said, a combination of rebuke and plea in his voice. He turned to me. “Fitz, are you sure you’ve had no message from him, either on paper or by the Skill, that would hint at what key will open him to us?”
“Nothing. Not for months.”
Kettricken looked around the room. “One of us knows.” She spoke slowly and precisely. She considered each of us with another slow, sweeping gaze, and then said, “I think it is most likely you, Fitz.”
She was probably right. I looked at Steady. “How does one use this keyword, if one knows it?”
The young man looked uncertain. “He didn’t instruct me in that, but I suspect it is something you Skill to him, and it is what permits you in.”
My heart sank. Had Burrich had a keyword, something that would have allowed me to reach him? A key that Chivalry had taken to his grave after his riding “accident”? I suddenly felt ill to know that I might have saved Burrich from death if I’d known his key. Well, it wasn’t going to happen again. Kettricken was correct. Chade was far too clever a man to have closed a lock without entrusting one of us with a key.
I took Chade’s hand in both of mine. I looked at his sunken face, at his lips puffing slightly with every expelled breath. I focused on him and reached again with the Skill. My mental grip on him slid and slipped, as if I tried to grasp a glass orb with soapy hands. I set my teeth and did a thing he had always decried. I found him with my Wit, focused on the animal life that I felt ebbing through his body, and then I needled my Skill at him. I began with a list of names. Chivalry. Verity. Shrewd. Fallstar. Farseer. Burrich. Kettricken. I went through everyone dear to us, hoping for a twitch of response. There was nothing. I finished with Lady Thyme. Lord Golden. Slink.