“Look. She almost looks like she’s smiling,” her mother whispered.
I opened my eyes. I had reached Nettle and conveyed the news. I had a half-wall in place now, almost blocking her outraged response that she had not been informed sooner and her flood of questions about how her mother could have possibly borne a child and her frantic reorganizing of her schedule to come to see us as soon as she practically could. Nettle’s flood of information threatened to overwhelm my own thoughts. I closed my eyes, conveyed to her that we would be delighted to see her whenever she could come, and the same for any of her brothers who chose to visit, and would she please send those messages on for us. Then I hastily retreated from her mind, walling myself into my own thoughts again.
I knew that I would pay for it when my elder daughter and I were in the same room and I could not so easily retreat from her tongue-lashing. I was content to wait for that experience. I settled my shoulders. “Nettle knows now, and will pass on the word to the boys. She will soon be coming to visit,” I told Molly. I wandered back to her, but sat down on the floor at her feet. I leaned lightly on her legs and picked up my cup of tea.
“Will she travel by the stones?” Her dread was in her question.
“No. I have prevailed there, and the pillars will only be used in matters of great urgency, and in secrecy. She will come as soon as she can arrange it, by horseback, and with an escort.”
Molly had been busy with thoughts of her own. “Is it the Queen you fear?” she asked in a low voice.
I raised my brows at her. “Scarcely. She pays no attention to my existence at all. She and Dutiful have taken both the Princes and gone to visit Bearns Duchy for ten days. He is finally listening to Chade, I believe. The plan is that the royal family will visit all Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom, staying at least ten days with each duke. I confess, I wonder if the dukes are already showing their daughters to the Princes in the hope of early arrangements for—”
“Don’t try to distract me. You know very well which Queen I am talking about.”
I had and did. I lowered my eyes at her scowl. “Kettricken is on her way home from the Mountains right now. Dutiful Skilled the news to me some days ago. She has reached an agreement with both the Mountain people and the Six Duchies dukes. She will be spending much more time there now, maybe even half of each year. She will not be called Queen there, but will consult with Dutiful frequently. When she reaches Buckkeep, they intend to choose one of the Skill-apprentices to be a companion to her whenever she travels there, to make communication between the Mountains and the Six Duchies far more swift. I think both she and Dutiful will find it a relief. There, she is still a Queen, even if they do not name her so. And Queen Elliania will have much more room to adjust the court and the castle to her liking. I think it was a wise compromise they reached.”
Molly shook her head. “It will be, if Dutiful lives up to his share of it and stands up to the Narcheska. The boys were supposed to be sent to the Mountains for two months of every year, to better learn the language and ways of that duchy. If he does not undertake that, when Queen Kettricken dies, he may find that his beloved seventh duchy rises against the idea of becoming a full part of the Six Duchies.”
I nodded, taking relief in the change of topic. “You have put your finger exactly on what worries me. The two Queens have always chafed against each other and—”
Molly was relentless. “But that does not answer my question. Regarding our little one and your ridiculous idea to raise her in secrecy, who were you hoping to conceal her from? I wonder this, and the only answer I can think of is Queen Kettricken. And perhaps Lord Chade?”
I shifted uncomfortably and then leaned my head against her knee. She moved her hand and stirred her fingers through my hair. She spoke softly. “I’ve never been stupid, you know.”
“Far from it. I know that you’ve pieced it all together over the years, even if we seldom speak of it aloud. But when we talk of it, the memory of how I lied to you and deceived you for so many years is like a sword in my chest. Molly, I am so—”
“Evasive,” she filled in for me in a deliberately light voice. “Fitz, you have apologized a thousand times for those days, and I have forgiven you. So, please, do not make me angry by trying to distract me now. Who and what do you fear?”
Silence hovered. Then, “I fear everyone,” I admitted in a low voice. I admitted it to myself as much as her. “You and I see a baby we have longed for, and a child who is so different that others may despise her for that reason alone. But others may see her as a secret Princess or a potential Skill-user or a political pawn, a future woman to be wedded where she is most useful to the throne. I know they must see her that way. Just as they saw me as a royal bastard and a very useful tool. An assassin or a disposable diplomat. Just as they saw Nettle as a potential broodmare for a royal heir should Dutiful’s seed somehow fail to thrive. When Chade and Kettricken blocked Nettle’s engagement to Riddle—”