I gave up on that list and opened my eyes. The room was quiet around me. King Dutiful still sat on the other side of the bed. In the window behind him, the sun was foundering on the horizon. “I sent the others away,” he said quietly.
“I had no luck.”
“I know. I was listening.”
I studied my King in that unguarded moment. He and Nettle were nearly of an age and resembled each other in small ways, if one knew to look for them. They had the dark curly hair typical of the Farseer line. She had a straight nose and a determined mouth, as did he. But Dutiful had grown taller than I while Nettle was not much taller than her mother. Dutiful sat now, his hands steepled with the fingertips touching his mouth and his eyes grave. My King. The third Farseer King I had served.
Dutiful rose, groaning as he stretched his back. His hound imitated him, rising and then bowing low to the floor. He walked to the door, opened it, and said, “Food, please. And a dish of water for Courser. And some of the good brandy. Two cups. Let my lady mother know that as of yet we’ve had no success.” He shut the door and turned back to me. “What? Why are you smiling?”
“Such a king you became, Dutiful! Verity would be proud of you. He was the same way, able to say ‘please’ to the lowliest servant with no trace of irony. So. We have not spoken in months. How sits the crown?”
In response, he took it off and gave his head a shake, and then ran his fingers through his hair. He set it on Chade’s bedside table and said, “Heavy, sometimes. Even this one, and the formal one I must wear when I sit in judgment is worse. But it has to be borne.”
I knew he was not speaking of the actual weight of it. “And your Queen, and the Princes?”
“They are well.” He sighed. “She misses her home, and the freedom of being the Narcheska rather than the Queen of the Six Duchies. She has taken the boys to visit her mothershouse yet again. I know it is the way of her folk, that the maternal lineage is the one that counts. But both my mother and Chade believe I am foolish to risk both sons on the sea so often.” He smiled ruefully. “Yet it is still hard for me to deny her anything she wants. And, as she points out, they are as much her sons as mine. After Prosper took a bad fall in a hunt last winter, she compared me doing that with them to her taking them across the water. And she frets that as yet she has not borne a daughter for her mothershouse. While for me, it has almost been a relief that we have only sons. If I never have to confront the issue of where my daughter would be raised, I would count it a blessing. But she frets that she has gone four years now with no pregnancy. Well.” He sighed.
“She’s young yet,” I said boldly. “You are what, barely thirty? And she is younger still. You have time.”
“But there have been two miscarriages …” His words trickled away, and he stared at a shadow in the corner. The dog at his feet whined and looked at me accusingly. Dutiful stopped to set a hand to him. For a moment, we all were quiet. Then, plainly changing the direction of our conversation, he tipped his head toward Chade. “He’s sinking, Fitz. What do we do now?”
A knock at the door interrupted us. This time I rose and went to open it. A page came in bearing a tray with food. Three others followed, one with a carafe of warmed water, a basin, and cloths, and the other with the brandy and cups. The girl came in last, carrying a small table and puffing a bit with the effort. Dutiful and I were silent as our repast and washwater were set out for us. The pages lined up, bowed in unison, and waited to receive Dutiful’s thanks before retiring. When the door was shut, I gestured at the table. Courser was already at his bowl of water, lapping noisily.
“We eat. We drink. And we try again,” I told him.
And we did.
In the deeps of night, by candlelight, I damped a cloth and moistened Chade’s lips. I felt I was keeping a death watch now. I had given up on specific words long ago, and simply begun a long conversation with him about all the things I recalled doing with him during my apprenticeship to be an assassin. I had wandered from a time of him teaching me the mixing of poisons to our wild ride to Forge. I had recited a number of learning poems about the healing properties of herbs. I had recalled our quarrels as well as the moments when we had been closest, all in the hope that a random word might be the key. Nothing had worked. Dutiful had kept the vigil with me. The others had come and gone during the night, entering and leaving the room like shadows moving with the sun’s passage. Thick had sat with us for a time, unhelpfully offering words we’d already tried. Nettle had visited Chade’s old study and rummaged through the scrolls and other items left on his table. She had brought them down to us to inspect. None of them had given us a clue. Hope had been peeled away from us like a sodden bandage covering a festering wound. I had moved from feeble optimism to wishing it were all over.