Two days later, King Dutiful and his retinue departed from the Mountains. Kettricken remained behind to have more time with her extended family and her people and to assure her people that she would more often visit there as they began the long transition to becoming the seventh duchy under King Dutiful.
Unnoticed, I remained behind as well, lingering until the last of the King’s company were out of sight, and then waiting until late afternoon before I departed. I wanted to ride alone and think. I left Jhaampe with no care or thought as to where I would sleep that night or how.
I had believed I would find some sort of serenity in the Mountains. I had witnessed how gracefully they surrendered their King to death and made room for life to continue. But when I departed, I took more envy than serenity with me. They had lost their King after a lifetime of his wisdom. He had died with his dignity and his mind intact. I was losing my beloved Molly, and I knew with dread that it would only get worse, much worse, before the end. I had lost the Fool, the best friend I had ever had, years ago. I thought I had accepted it, become immune to missing him. But the deeper Molly ventured into madness, the more I missed him. Always he had been the one I turned to for counsel. Chade did his best, but he was ever my elder and mentor. When I had visited the Fool’s old home, I had thought only to look at it for a time and touch the stone that once I had had a friend who had known me that well and still loved me.
Instead I had discovered that perhaps I had not known him as well as I had thought. Had his friendship with Jofron meant so much more to him than what we had shared? A startling thought pricked me. Had she been more to him than a friend or follower of the White Prophet?
Would you have begrudged him that? That for a time, he lived in the now and had something that was good when all hope had left him?
I lifted my eyes. I wished with all my heart to see a gray shape flitting through the trees and brush beside the road. But of course I did not. My wolf was gone these many years, gone longer than the Fool had been gone. He lived only in me now, in the way his wolfness could suddenly intrude into my thoughts. At least I still had that of him. It was thin soup.
“I would not have begrudged him that,” I said aloud, and wondered if I lied so that I need not be ashamed of myself. I shook my head and tried to put my mind into the now. It was a beautiful day, the road was good, and while problems might await me when I returned home, they were not here with me now. And truly, my missing the Fool today was no different from how I had missed him on any of the yesterdays I’d spent without him. So he had sent missives to Jofron and not to me? That had been true for years, apparently. Now I knew of it. That was the only difference.
I was trying to persuade myself that knowing that small fact made no difference when I heard hoofbeats on the road behind me. Someone was riding a horse at a gallop. Perhaps a messenger. Well, the road was wide enough that he could pass me effortlessly. Nonetheless, I reined my mount more to one side and glanced back to watch him come.
A black horse. A rider. And in three strides, I knew it was Nettle on Inky. I thought she had gone on with the others, and then realized she must be hurrying to catch up with them after being delayed for some reason. I pulled in my horse and waited for her, fully expecting her to pass me with a wave.
But as soon as she saw I had halted, she slowed her mount; by the time she reached me Inky had reduced her pace to a trot. “Ho!” Nettle called to her, and Inky halted neatly beside us.
“I thought you were going to stay another night, and then when I realized you were gone I had to race to catch up with you,” she announced breathlessly.
“Why aren’t you with the King? Where are your guards?”
She gave me a look. “I told Dutiful I’d be with you and needed no other guard. He and Chade both agreed.”
She stared at me. “Well, among them, you do have a certain reputation as a very competent assassin.”
That silenced me for a moment. They still thought of me that way when I did not? I put my thoughts back in order. “No, I meant, why did you stay to travel with me? Not that I’m not glad to see you, I’m just surprised.” I added the last as her glance at me darkened. “I had not even realized anyone had noticed that I did not remain with the main party.”
She cocked her head at me. “Would you have noticed if I were not there?”
“Well, of course!”
“Everyone noticed when you quietly withdrew. Dutiful spoke to me several days ago, saying that you seemed even more morose than one might expect you to be at a funeral and perhaps it was best if you were not left alone. Kettricken was a party to his words, and she added that this visit might have stirred old memories for you. Sad ones. So. Here I am.”