I looked aside from her, only to find Faith's wide eyes on us, her mouth an O of scandalized delight. Imagining what she imagined I had said to her sister brought the color and heat to my face as well. As I went scarlet she and Shells burst out giggling.
It seemed an eternity before we left the storm-battered Queen's Garden. Our guests sought their rooms, both to change from sodden clothing and to prepare for their journey. I did likewise, dressing hastily lest I miss anything of their departure. I was at the outer courtyard to see Brawndy and his guard mount. So was Queen Kettricken, in her now familiar purple and white, and her honor guard had been turned out as well. She stood beside Brawndy's horse to bid him farewell, and before he mounted, he went down on one knee and kissed her hand. Some brief words were spoken, I know not what, but the Queen smiled as the winds lashed her hair about her face. Brawndy and his troops set off into the teeth of the storm. There was anger yet in the set of Brawndy's shoulders, but his obeisance to the Queen showed me that as of yet not all was lost.
Celerity and Faith both looked back to me as they rode off, and Celerity dared to lift a hand in farewell. I returned the gesture. I stood watching them go, chilled by more than the rain. I had supported Verity and Kettricken this day, but at what cost to myself? What was I doing to Celerity? Was Molly, perhaps, right about all this?
Later that evening, I went to pay my respects to my king. He had not summoned me. I did not intend to discuss Celerity with him. I went, wondering if Verity willed it in me or if it was my own heart cautioning me not to abandon him. Wallace grudgingly admitted me, with a stern warning that the King was still not feeling completely himself, and I must not weary him.
King Shrewd was sitting up before his fireplace. The air of the room was cloying with Smoke. The Fool, his face still an interesting landscape of purples and blues, sat at the King's feet. He had the good fortune to be below the most pungent level of the haze. I had no such luck as I took the low backless stool that Wallace so thoughtfully provided for me.
A few moments after I had presented myself and sat down, the King turned to me. He regarded me blearily for a few moments as his head swayed on his neck. "Ah, Fitz," the King greeted me belatedly. "How have your lessons been? Is Master Fedwren pleased with your progress?"
I glanced at the Fool, who did not meet my eyes, but poked morosely at the fire.
"Yes," I said quietly. "He has said my lettering is good."
"That's fine. A clear hand is a thing any man may be proud of. And what of our bargain? Have I kept my word to you?"
It was our old litany. Once more I considered the terms he had offered me. He would feed me, clothe me, and educate me, and in return he would have my complete loyalty. I smiled at the familiar words, but my throat closed at how the man who said them had wasted away, and what they had come to cost me.
"Yes, my king. You have," I answered softly.
"Good. Then see you keep your word to me as well
." He leaned back heavily in his chair.
"I shall, Your Majesty," I promised, and the Fool's eyes met mine as he witnessed again that promise.
For a few moments the room was still, save for the crackling of the fire. Then the King sat up as if startled by a sound. He looked about confusedly. "Verity? Where's Verity?"
"He's gone on a quest, my king. To seek the help of the Elderlings to drive the Red-Ships from our shores."
"Ah, yes. Of course. Of course he has. But just for a moment, I thought …" He leaned back in his chair. Then all the hair on my skin prickled up. I could feel him vaguely Skilling, in an unfocused fumbling way. His mind tugged at mine like old hands seeking for a grip. I had believed him incapable of Skilling anymore, I had thought that he had burned out his talent years ago. Verity had told me once that Shrewd used his talent but seldom anymore. I had set those words aside as his loyalty to his father. But the ghostly Skill plucked at my thoughts like unschooled fingers at harp strings. I sensed Nighteyes hackling at this new invasion. Silence, I cautioned him.
My breath snagged suddenly on an idea. Fostered by Verity within me? I set aside all cautions, reminded myself that this was what I had promised this man so long ago. Loyalty in all things. "My king?" I asked his permission as I moved my stool closer to his chair. I took his withered hand in mine.
It was like plunging myself into a rushing river. "Ah, Verity, my boy, there you are!" Just for a moment I glimpsed Verity as King Shrewd still saw him. A chubby boy of eight or nine, more friendly than smart, not so tall as his big brother, Chivalry. But a sound and likable Prince, an excellent second son, not too ambitious, not too questioning. Then, just as if I had stepped off a riverbank, I tumbled into a black, rushing roar of Skill. It was disorienting to see suddenly through Shrewd's eyes. The edges of his vision were filmy with haze. For a moment I glimpsed Verity forging wearily through snow. What's this? Fitz? Then I was whirled away, carried into the heart of King Shrewd's pain. Skilled deep inside him, beyond where the herbs and smoke deadened him, I was scorched with the agony. It was a slow-growing pain, along his spine and in his skull, a pushing crowding thing that would not be ignored. His choices were to be consumed by the agony that would not let him think, or to deaden his body and mind with herbs and Smokes to hide from it. But deep inside his fogged mind, a King still lived and raged at his confinement. The spirit was still there, battling the body that no longer obeyed him and the pain that devoured the last years of his life. I swear I saw him, a young man, perhaps a year or so older than myself. His hair had been as bushy and unruly as Verity's, his eyes were wide and lively, and once his face's only lines had been from a wide grin. This was who he still was, in his soul, this young man, trapped and desperate. He seized on me, asking wildly, "Is there a way out?" I felt myself sinking with his grip.