So now I said only, “If you have urgent need of me, I will always come. I think I’ve demonstrated that, over and over. And having used the stones once to get here swiftly, if need drives me hard, I would probably do it again. But I do not think I will ever again live within the keep walls, or be advisor to the throne.”
Kettricken drew breath as if to speak and Dutiful said quietly, “Mother.” It was not a rebuke. Perhaps a reminder that we had trodden this path before. Kettricken looked at me and smiled.
“It’s kind of you to invite me,” I told her. “Truly it is. If you didn’t, I’d fear that you thought me useless now.”
She returned my smile, and we finished our meal. As we rose, I said, “I’m going to visit Chade, and if he seems strong enough that I’m not fearful for him, I will want to return to Withywoods today.”
“Via the stones?” Kettricken asked me.
I wanted, badly, to be at home. Was that why the thought tempted me? Or was it the lure of the Skill-current that flowed so deep and swift behind those graven surfaces? They were both watching me closely. Dutiful spoke softly. “Remember what the Black Man told you. Using the stones too often in quick succession is dangerous.”
I needed no reminder. The memory of losing weeks inside a pillar chilled me. I gave my head a small shake, scarce able to believe that I had even considered using the Skill portals for my return journey. “Can I borrow a horse?”
Dutiful smiled. “You can have any horse in the stable, Fitz. You know that. Choose a good one to add to your stock.”
I did know that. But it wasn’t a thing I would ever take for granted.
It was mid-afternoon when I went to see the old man. Chade was propped up by a multitude of pillows in all shades of green velvet. The drapes of his bed were pulled back and secured with heavy cords of twisted silk. The bell pull had been placed within his reach, as had a bedside table with a bowl of hothouse fruit. There were fruits and nuts that I did not recognize, evidence of our lively trade with new partners to the south. His hair had been freshly brushed and bound back in a warrior’s tail. It had been shot with gray when first I met him, and now it gleamed an even silver. The purpled swelling and bruise had vanished, leaving only a yellowish-brown shadow where they had been. His green eyes were as bright as polished jade. But those signs of health could not restore the flesh he had lost to our forced healing. He was, I thought, a very vital skeleton. As I entered the room, he set aside a scroll he had been reading.
“What is that you are wearing?” I demanded curiously.
He glanced down at himself without the slightest shadow of self-consciousness. “A bed jacket, I think it is called. A gift from a Jamaillian noblewoman who arrived with a trade envoy a few months ago.” He smoothed his fingers down the heavily embroidered sleeve. “It’s quite comfortable, really. It’s meant to keep the shoulders and back warm if one decides to stay in bed and read.”
I drew a stool up beside his bed and sat down. “It seems to be a very specialized garment.”
“In that, it is very Jamaillian. Did you know that they have a special robe to wear while they are praying to their two-faced god? You put it on one direction if you’re begging something of the male aspect, or turn it round if you’re praying to the female aspect. And …” He sat up straighter in bed, his face becoming more animated as it always did when he fastened on to one of his fascinations. “If a woman is pregnant, she wears one sort of garment to ensure a boy child, and another for a daughter.”
“And does that work?” I was incredulous.
“It’s supposed to be helpful, but not absolute. Why? Are you and Molly still trying for a child?”
Chade had never regarded any part of my life as private since he’d learned of my existence. And he never would. It was easier to tell him than to rebuke him for his prying. “No. We’ve had no real hope left for some time. She’s long past her bearing years now. Nettle will be our only daughter.”
His face softened. “I’m sorry, Fitz. I’ve been told that nothing completes a man’s life in quite the way that children do. I know that you wanted—”
I interrupted. “I had the raising of Hap. I flatter myself that I did well enough for a man handed an eight-year-old orphan at short notice. He keeps in touch with me still, when his travels and minstrel duties allow it. And Nettle turned out well, and Molly has shared all her younger children with me. I watched Hearth and Just grow to manhood, and we watched them ride off together. Those were good years, Chade. There’s no good to be had from pining after lost chances. I have Molly. And truly, she’s enough for me. She’s my home.”