His thoughts were fading. I knew how weary he was. My own body had begun to clamor at me for rest. Skilling was serious work. As draining as hunting. Or fighting. It had been a fight, hadn’t it? An invasion of Chade’s private territory …
I twitched awake. I still held Chade’s hand, but he was deeply asleep now. Dutiful sprawled in his chair on the other side of the bed, snoring softly. His dog lifted his head to stare at me for a moment, and then dropped it back to his forepaws. We were all exhausted. By the last flames on the candle stubs, I studied Chade’s ravaged face. He looked as if he had fasted for days. The pads of flesh on his cheeks were gone, and I saw the shape of his skull. The hand I still held was a bundle of bones in a sack of skin. He would live now, but he would be days rebuilding his body and his strength. Tomorrow he would be ravenous.
I leaned back with a sigh. My back ached from sleeping in the chair. The rugs on the floor of the chamber were thick and inviting. I stretched out on the floor by his bedside like a faithful dog. I slept.
I came awake to Thick stepping on my hand. I sat up with a curse, nearly knocking the tray from his hands. “You should not sleep on the floor!” he rebuked me.
I sat up, trapping my bruised fingers under my arm. It was hard to argue with Thick’s remark. I clambered to my feet and then dropped back into my familiar chair. In the bed Chade was partially propped up. The old man was skeletal, and his grin at my discomfort was frightening in his wasted face. Dutiful’s chair was empty. Thick was arranging the tray on Chade’s lap. I smelled tea and biscuits and warmed jam. A bowl on the tray held soft-cooked eggs mashed up with a little butter, salt, and pepper next to a rank of thick rashers of bacon. I wanted to fall on it and devour it all. I think it must have showed on my face, for Chade’s bony grin widened. He didn’t speak, but flapped a hand, dismissing me.
Once I would have gone directly to the kitchens. As a boy, I’d been Cook’s pet there. As a youngster and then a young man, I’d eaten with the guardsmen in their noisy and untidy dining hall. Now I Skilled to King Dutiful, asking if he’d eaten yet. I was immediately invited to join him and his mother in a private chamber. I went, anticipating food and the good conversation that would go with it.
Kettricken and Dutiful were both waiting for me. Kettricken, true to her Mountain heritage, had arisen early and eaten lightly. Still she shared a table with us, a delicate cup of pale tea steaming before her. Dutiful was as hungry as I was, and even wearier, for he had gotten up early to share details about Chade’s healing with her. A small caravan of pages arrived with food and arranged it for us on the table. Dutiful dismissed them, and the door closed to leave us in relative privacy. Other than a morning greeting, Kettricken held her silence while we filled our plates and then our bellies.
After we had emptied our first plates, Dutiful talked, sometimes through a mouthful of food, while I ate. The healers had visited Lord Chade while I slept. They had been horrified at how wasted he was, but his appetite and short temper had convinced them he would mend. Steady had been royally forbidden to lend strength to Chade in any attempt to seal himself again. Dutiful hoped that would be enough to prevent future mishaps. Privately I suspected that Chade could always find a way to either bribe or deceive Thick into helping him.
When our eating had slowed, and Kettricken had filled our cups with tea for the third time, she spoke softly. “Once again, FitzChivalry, you have answered our desperate call. You can see how much we still need you. I know you enjoy your quiet life now, and I will not dispute that you have earned it. But I will ask you to consider spending perhaps one month of every season here at Buckkeep Castle with us. I am sure that Lady Molly would enjoy being closer to both Nettle and Steady for those times. Swift also comes and goes frequently. She must miss her sons, and I know that we would love to have you here.”
It was an old discussion. I had been proffered this invitation any number of times, in all sorts of forms. We had been offered chambers in the keep, a lovely house atop the cliffs with an amazing view of the waters below, a cozy cottage on the edge of the sheep meadows, and now the offer of coming and going as guests four times a year. I smiled at both of them. They read the answer in my eyes.
For me, it was not a question of where I lived. It was that I did not want a day-to-day intimacy with the politics of being a Farseer. Dutiful had previously opined that enough time had passed that few people would even care if FitzChivalry Farseer were miraculously resurrected from the dead, no matter how much disgrace had once been attached to me. I doubted that. But even as the humbler Holder Tom Badgerlock, even Lord Badgerlock, as they had offered, I did not wish to navigate those waters again. It was inevitable that their currents would drag me down and away from Molly and drown me in Farseer politics. They knew that as clearly as I did.