This Assassin’s Fate preview from the third book of the Fitz and Fool Trilogy is nothing short of a gift from Robin Hobb. The book is not due out until May of 2017 and while I am sure it will be worth the wait, it’s not easy doing all that waiting.
There is a peculiar strength that comes to a man when he knows he is facing his final battle. That battle is not limited to war, nor the strength to warriors. I’ve seen this strength in old women with the coughing sickness and heard of it in families that are starving together. It drives one to go on, past hope or despair, past blood loss and gut wounds, past death itself in a final surge to save something that is cherished. It is courage without hope. During the Red-Ship Wars, I saw a man with blood gouting from where his left arm had once been, yet swinging a sword with his right as he stood protecting a fallen comrade. During one encounter with Forged Ones I saw a mother stumbling over her own entrails as she shrieked and clutched at a Forged man, trying to hold him away from her daughter.
The Outlslanders have a word for that courage. Finblead, they call it, the last blood, and they believe that a special fortitude resides in the final blood that remains in a man or a woman before they fall. According to their tales, only then can one find and use that sort of courage.
It is a terrible bravery – and at its strongest and worst, it goes on for months when one battles a final illness. Or, I believe, when one moves toward a duty that will definitely result in death but is completely unavoidable. That finblead lights everything in one’s life with a terrible radiance. All relationships are illuminated for what they are, and for what they truly were in the past. All illusions melt away. The false is revealed as starkly as the true.
As the taste of the bark spread in my mouth, the sounds of the turmoil around me grew louder. I lifted my head and tried to focus my stinging eyes. I hung in Lant’s arms, the familiar bitterness of elfbark suffusing my mouth. As the bark damped my magic, I became more aware of my surroundings. My left wrist ached with a bone-deep pain, searing as frozen iron. While the Skill had surged through me, healing and changing those I touched, my perception had shrunk, but now I was fully aware of the shouting of the crowd enclosing me as the sound bounced from the lofty walls of the elegant Elderling chamber. I smelled fear-sweat in the air. I was caught in the press of the mob, with some Elderlings fighting to get away from me as others were shoving to get closer. So many people! Hands reached toward me, with cries of ‘Please! Please, just one more!’ Others shouted, ‘Let me through!’ as they pushed to get away from me. The Skill-current that had flowed so strongly around me and through me had abated, but it wasn’t gone. Lant’s elfbark was the milder herb, Six Duchies grown and somewhat stale by the taste of it. Here in the Elderling city, the Skill flowed so strong and close I did not think even delvenbark could have closed me to it completely.
But it was enough. I was aware of the Skill but no longer shackled to its service. Yet the exhaustion of letting it use me now slackened my muscles just when I had most need of them. General Rapskal had torn the Fool from my grasp. The Elderling gripped Amber’s wrist and held her silvered hand aloft, shouting, ‘I told you so! I told you they were thieves! Look at her hand, coated in the dragon’s silver! She has discovered the well! She has stolen from our dragons!’
Spark clung to Amber’s other arm, trying to drag her free of the general’s grip. The girl’s teeth were bared, her black curls wild around her face. The look of sheer terror on Amber’s scarred face both paralyzed and panicked me. The years of privation the Fool had endured were betrayed in that stark grimace. They made her face a death mask of bones and red lips and rouged cheeks. I had to go to the Fool’s aid, and yet my knees kept folding of their own accord. Perserverance seized my arm. ‘Prince FitzChivalry, what must I do? What must I do?’ I could not find breath to reply to him.
‘Fitz! Stand up!’ Lant roared right next to my ear. It was as much plea as command. I found my feet, and pressed my weight against them. I strained, shuddering, trying to keep my legs straight under me.
We had arrived in Kelsingra just the day before, and for a few hours I had been the hero of the day, the magical Six Duchies prince who had healed Ephron, the son of the king and queen of Kelsingra. The Skill had flowed through me, as intoxicating as Sandsege brandy. At the request of King Reyn and Queen Malta I had used my magic to set right half a dozen dragon-touched children. I had opened myself to the powerful Skill-current of the old Elderling city. Awash in that heady power, I’d opened throats and steadied heartbeats, straightened bones and cleared scales from eyes. Some I’d made more human and one girl had actually wished to embrace her dragon changes and I’d helped her do that.
But the Skill-flow had become too strong, too intoxicating. I’d lost control of the magic, become its tool instead of its master. Even after the children I’d agreed to heal had been claimed by their parents, others pushed forward. Adult Rain Wilders with changes uncomfortable or ugly or life-threatening had begged my aid, and I had dispensed it with a lavish hand, caught in the vast pleasure of that flow. I’d felt my last shred of control give way, but when I’d surrendered to that glorious surge and its invitation to merge with the magic, Amber had stripped the glove from her hand. To save me, she’d revealed the stolen dragon-silver on her fingers. To save me, she’d pressed three scalding fingertips to my bare wrist, and burned her way into my mind and called me back. To save me, she’d betrayed herself as thief. The hot kiss of her fingers’ touch still pulsed like a fresh burn, sending a deep ache up the bones of my arm, to my shoulder, to my back and neck.
What damage it was doing to me now, I could not know. But at least I was again anchored to my body. I was anchored to it and it was dragging me down. I’d lost track of how many Elderlings I’d touched and changed, but my body had kept count. Each one had taken a toll from me, each shaping had torn strength from me, and now that debt had to be paid. Despite all my efforts, my head lolled and I could scarcely keep my eyes open amidst the danger and noise all around me. I saw the room as through a mist.
‘Rapskal, stop being an ass!’ That was King Reyn adding his roar to the din.
Lant abruptly tightened his hug around my chest, dragging me more upright. ‘Let her go!’ he bellowed. ‘Release our friend, or the prince will undo every cure he has worked! Let her go, right now!’
I heard gasps, wailing, a man shouting ‘No! He must not!’ A woman screamed, ‘Let go of her, Rapskal! Let her go!’ Malta’s voice rang with command as she cried out, ‘This is not how we treat guests and ambassadors! Release her, Rapskal, this moment!’ Her cheeks were flushed and the crest of flesh above her brow bloomed with colour.
‘Let go of me!’ Amber’s voice rang with authority. From some deep well of courage she had drawn the will to fight back on her own behalf. Her voice cut through the crowd’s noise. ‘Release me, or I will touch you!’ She made good her threat, surging toward Rapskal instead of trying to pull her hand free. The sudden reverse shocked him, and her silvered fingers came perilously close to his face. The general gave a shout of alarm and sprang back from her as he let go of her wrist. But she was not finished. ‘Back, all of you!’ she commanded. ‘Give us room and let me see to the prince. Or by Sa, I will touch you!’ Hers was the voice of an angered queen, pitched to carry her authority. Her silvered forefinger pointed as she swung it in a slow arc around her, and people were suddenly stumbling over one another in their haste to be out of her reach.
The mother of the girl with dragon feet lifted her voice. ‘I’d do as she says!’ she warned. ‘If that is truly dragon-silver on her fingers, one touch of it will mean slow death. It will seep down to your bones, right through your flesh. It will travel your bones, up your spine to your skull. Eventually, you will be grateful to die from it.’ As others were falling back from us, she began pushing her way through the crowd toward us. She was not a large person but the other dragon keepers were giving way to her. She stopped a safe distance from us. Her dragon had patterned her in blue and black and silver. The wings that weighted her shoulders were folded snug to her back. The claws on her toes tapped the floor as she walked. Of all the Elderlings present, she was most heavily modified by her dragon’s touch. Her warning and Amber’s threat cleared a small space around us.
Amber retreated to my side and I heard her draw a shuddering breath. Spark stood on her left side and Perseverance took up a position in front of her. Amber’s voice was low and calm as she said, ‘Spark, retrieve my glove if you would.’
‘Of course, my lady.’ The requested item had fallen to the floor. Spark stooped and cautiously picked it up in two fingers. ‘I will touch your wrist,’ she warned Amber, and tapped the back of her hand to guide her to her glove. Amber was still breathing unsteadily as she gloved her hand but, weak as I was, I was horribly glad to see that she had regained some of the Fool’s strength and presence of mind. She linked her unsilvered hand through my arm and I was reassured by her touch. It seemed to draw off some of the Skill-current still coursing through me. I felt both connected to her and less battered by the Skill.
‘I think I can stand,’ I muttered to Lant and he loosened his grip on me. I could not allow anyone to see how drained I was of strength. I rubbed my eyes and wiped elfbark powder from my face. My knees did not buckle and I managed to hold my head steady. I straightened up. I badly wanted the knife in my boot, but if I stooped for it, I knew I would not stop until I sprawled on the floor.
The woman who had warned the others stepped into the empty space that now surrounded us, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. ‘Lady Amber, is it truly dragon-silver on your hand?’ she asked in quiet dread.
‘It is!’ General Rapskal had found his courage and took up a stance beside her. ‘And she has stolen it from the dragon’s well. She must be punished! Keepers and folk of Kelsingra, we cannot be seduced by the healing of a few children! We do not even know if this magic will last or if it is a cheat. But we have all seen the evidence of this intruder’s theft, and we all know that our first duty is and must always be to the dragons who have befriended us.’
‘Speak for yourself, Rapskal.’ The woman gave him a cold stare. ‘My first duty is to my daughter, and she no longer totters when she stands.’
‘Are you so easily bought, Thymara?’ Rapskal demanded with scathing disdain.
The father of the child stepped into the circle to stand beside the woman called Thymara. The girl with the dragon feet rode on his shoulder and looked down on us. He spoke as if he scolded a wilful child, rebuke tinged with familiarity. ‘Of all people, Rapskal, you should know that Thymara cannot be bought. Answer me this. Who has it harmed that this lady has silvered her fingers? Only herself. She will die of it. So what worse can we do to her? Let her go. Let all of them go, and let them go with my thanks.’
‘She stole!’ Rapskal’s shout turned to a shriek, his dignity flung to the wind.
Reyn had managed to elbow his way through the crowd. Queen Malta was right behind him, her cheeks pink beneath her scaling and her eyes fiery with her anger. The dragon changes in her were amplified by her fury. There was a glitter in her eyes that was not human, and the crest of flesh in the parting of her hair seemed taller: it reminded me of a rooster’s comb. She was the first to speak. ‘My apologies, Prince FitzChivalry, Lady Amber. Our people forgot themselves in their hopes of being healed. And General Rapskal is sometimes—’
‘Don’t speak for me!’ the general interrupted her. ‘Do not dismiss what I’m pointing out. She stole silver. We saw the evidence, and no, it’s not enough that she has poisoned herself. We cannot let her leave Kelsingra. None of them can leave, for now they know the secret of the dragon’s well!’
Amber spoke. She sounded calm but she pushed her words so that all could hear. ‘May I prove that there was silver on my fingers for years? Before you were born, I believe, General Rapskal. Before your dragons hatched, before Kelsingra was found and reclaimed, I bore what we of the Six Duchies call Skill on my fingers. And your queen can attest to that.’
‘She is not our queen and he is not our king!’ General Rapskal’s chest heaved with emotion and along his neck patches of his scales showed a bright scarlet. ‘So they have said, over and over! They have said that we must rule ourselves, that they are but figureheads for the rest of the world. So, keepers, let us rule ourselves! Let us put our dragons first, as we are meant to do!’ He pointed a finger at Lady Amber, from a safe distance, and it shook as he demanded of his fellows, ‘Recall how difficult it was for us to find and renew the well of silver! Will you believe her ridiculous tale that she has carried it on her fingertips for scores of years and not died of it?’
Queen Malta’s rueful voice cut through Rapskal’s rant. ‘I am sorry to say that I cannot attest to such a thing, Lady Amber. I knew you only briefly during your time in Bingtown, and met you seldom during the negotiations of your loans to many of the Traders.’ She shook her head. ‘A Trader’s word is all she has to give and I will not bend mine, even to help a friend. I cannot. The best I can say is that when I knew you in those days you always went gloved. I never saw your hands.’
‘You heard her!’ Rapskal’s shout was triumphant. ‘There is no proof! There can be no…’
‘If I may speak?’ For years, as King Shrewd’s jester, the Fool had had to make even his whispered comments heard across a large and sometimes crowded room. He had trained his voice to carry, and it now cut through not only Rapskal’s shout but also the muttering of the crowd. A simmering silence filled the room. He did not move as a blind man as he stepped forward into the space his threat had cleared. He was a performer stepping into his stage. It was in the sudden grace of his movements and his storyteller’s voice, and the sweep of his gloved hand. He was the Fool to me, and the layer of Amber but a part of his performance.
‘Recall a summer day, dear Queen Malta. You were but a girl, and all was in turmoil in your life. All your family’s hopes for financial survival depended on the successful launch of the Paragon, a liveship so insane that thrice he had capsized and killed all his crew. But the mad ship was your only hope, and into his salvage and refitting the Vestrit family had poured the last of their resources.’
He had them, and me. I was as caught up in this tale as any of them.
‘Your family hoped that the Paragon would be able to find and restore to you your father and your brother, both missing for so long. That somehow you could reclaim Vivacia, your family’s own liveship, for it was rumoured that she had been taken by pirates. And not any pirates, but the fabled Captain Kennit himself. You stood on the deck of the mad ship, putting on such a brave face in your made-over gown with last year’s parasol. When all the others went below to tour the ship you stayed on the deck and I stayed near you, to watch over you as your Aunt Althea requested.’
‘I remember that day,’ Malta said slowly. ‘It was the first time we had really spoken to one another. I remember… we talked of the future. Of what it might hold for me. You told me that a small life would never satisfy me. You told me that I must earn my future. How did you put it?’
Lady Amber smiled, well pleased that this queen remembered words spoken to her when she was a child putting a brave face on impending poverty. ‘What I told you is as true today as it was then. Tomorrow owes you the sum of your yesterdays. No more than that. And no less.’
Malta’s smile was like sunlight. ‘And you warned me that sometimes people wished that tomorrow did not pay them off so completely.’
The queen stepped forward, unwittingly becoming part of the performance as she took her place on Amber’s stage. Her brow furrowed and she spoke like a woman in a dream. ‘And then… Paragon whispered to me. And I felt… oh, I did not know it then. I felt the dragon Tintaglia seize my thought. I felt she would smother me as she forced me to share her confinement in her tomb! And I fainted. It was terrible. I felt I was trapped with the dragon and could never find my way back to my own body.’
‘I caught you,’ Amber said. ‘And I touched you, on the back of your neck, with my Skilled fingers. Silvered, you would say. And by that magic, I called you back to your own body. But it left a mark on you. And a tiny tendril of a link that we share to this very day.’
‘What?’ Malta was incredulous.
‘It’s true!’ The words burst from King Reyn along with a laugh that was both relief and joy. ‘On the back of your neck, my dear! I saw them there in days when your hair was black as a crow’s wing, before Tintaglia turned it to gold. Three greyish ovals, like silver fingerprints gone dusty with age.’
Malta’s mouth hung open in surprise. At his words, her hands had darted to the back of her neck beneath the fall of glorious golden hair that was not blonde. ‘There was always a tender place here. Like a bruise that never healed.’ Abruptly she sent her second hand to join the first. She lifted her cascading locks and held them on the top of her head. ‘Come and look, any that wish. Come and see if what my husband and Lady Amber says is true.’
I was one of those who did. I staggered forward, still leaning on Lant, to see the same marks I had once borne on my wrist. Three greyish ovals, the mark of the Fool’s silvered hand. They were there.
The woman called Thymara stared in consternation when it was her turn to see the nape of the queen’s neck. ‘It’s a wonder it did not kill you,’ she said in a hushed voice.
I thought that would be an end of the matter, but when General Rapskal had taken three times as long to stare at the marks as any had, he turned away from the queen and said, ‘What does it matter if she had the silver then? What does it matter if she stole it a few nights ago, or several decades ago? Silver from the well belongs to the dragons. She must still be punished.’
I stiffened my back and tightened my belly. My voice must not shake. A deeper breath to make my words carry. I hoped I would not vomit. ‘It didn’t come from a well. It came from King Verity’s own hands, that he covered in Skill to work his great and final magic. He got it from where a river of Skill ran within a river of water. Name it not dragon’s silver. It is Skill from the Skill-river.’
‘And where might that be?’ Rapskal demanded in a voice so hungry it alarmed me.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied honestly. ‘I saw it but once, in a Skill-dream. My king never allowed me to go there with him, lest I give way to the temptation to plunge myself into it.’
‘Temptation?’ Thymara was shocked. ‘I, who am privileged to use the silver to do works for the city, feel no temptation to plunge myself into it. Indeed, I fear it.’
‘That is because you were not born with it coursing in your blood,’ the Fool said. ‘As some Farseers are. As Prince FitzChivalry was, born with the Skill as a magic within him, one that he can use to shape children as some might shape stone.’ That struck them dumb.
‘Is it possible?’ This from the winged Elderling, a genuine question.
Amber lifted her voice again. ‘The magic I bear on my hands is the same that was accidentally gifted to me by my King Verity. It is rightfully mine, not stolen, any more than the magic you joyfully allowed him to share with your children. Not stolen any more than the magic within you that changes you and marks your children. What do you call it? Marked by the Rain Wilds? Changed by the dragons? If this silver on my fingers is stolen, why then any here who have been healed have shared in the prince’s thievery.’
‘Enough of this!’ King Reyn commanded. I saw Rapskal’s eyes flash anger, but he did not speak as Reyn added, ‘We have abused and exhausted our guests. What the prince freely shared we have demanded in too great a quantity from him. See how pale he is, and how he shakes. Please, my guests, return to your chambers. Let us bring you both refreshments and our sincere apologies. But in the greatest quantity of all, let us offer you our thanks.’
He advanced and, with a gesture, moved Perseverance aside. Behind him came Queen Malta, offering her arm fearlessly to Amber. Reyn gripped my upper arm with surprising strength. I found myself a bit humiliated, but more thankful for the help. I managed to look back once to see Queen Malta and Spark escorting Amber while Per came last of all, slowly and with many a backward glance, as if wary that danger followed us, but the doors closed behind us without incident.
We walked through a corridor lined with curious folk who had been excluded from that audience. Then behind us, I heard the doors open and a gust of conversation belled out to become a roar. The hall seemed interminable. The stairs, when we came to them, wavered in my vision. I could not imagine that I could climb them. But I knew I must.
And I did, step by slow step, until we stood outside the doors of my guest chamber. ‘Thank you,’ I managed to say.
‘You thank me,’ Reyn gave a snort of laughter. ‘I would better deserve a curse from you after what we have put you through.’
‘Not you,’ I managed to say.
‘I will leave you in peace,’ he excused himself, and remained outside with his queen as my small party entered my room. When I heard Perseverance close the door, relief swept through me and my knees tired to fold. Lant put his arm around me to help me to the table, I hated that my companions must know how close I was to the end of my strength. I took his hand to steady myself.
A mistake. He cried out suddenly and went to his knees in the same moment that I felt the Skill course through me as swiftly as a snake striking. He clutched at the scar from the sword wound that the Chalcedean raiders had given him. It had been closed, apparently healed. But in that brief touch, I had known there was more for his body to do, and known, too, of one rib healed crookedly, and a fracture in his jaw that was mildly infected and giving him pain still. All repaired and set right, if one can call such a harsh correction a repair. I collapsed merrily on top of him. Lant groaned under me. I tried to roll off him but could not summon the strength. I heard Perseverance’s gasp: ‘Oh, sir! Let me help you!’
‘Don’t touch—’ I began, but he had already stooped and taken my hand. His outcry was sharper, a young man’s voice taken back to a boy’s shrill one. He fell onto his side and sobbed twice before he could master the pain. I managed to roll away from both of them. Lant didn’t move.
‘What has happened?’ Amber’s question was close to a scream. ‘Are we attacked? Fitz! Fitz, where are you?’
‘I’m here! There’s no danger to you. The Skill… I touched Lant. And Per.’ Those were all the words I could manage.
‘He did… the Skill did something to my wound. It’s bleeding again. My shoulder,’ Perseverance said in a tight voice.
I knew it would. It had to. But only briefly. It was hard to find the strength to speak. I lay on my back, staring up at the high ceiling. It mimicked a sky. Artfully crafted fluffy clouds moved across a pale blue sky. I lifted my head and summoned my voice. ‘It’s not blood, Per. It’s just wet. There was still a piece of fabric caught deep in the wound. It was slowly festering there. It had to come out and the fluids of infection with it. So it did. And your wound closed behind it. It’s healed now.’
Then I lay back on the floor and watched the elegant room swing around me. If I closed my eyes, it went faster. If I opened them, the forested walls wavered. I heard Lant roll over onto his belly and then stagger upright. He crouched over Per and said gently, ‘Let’s take a look at it.’
‘Look at your injuries as well,’ I said dully. I shifted my eyes, saw Spark standing over me and cried out, ‘No! Don’t touch me. I can’t control it.’
‘Let me help him,’ Lady Amber said quietly. Two hesitant steps brought her to where I lay on the floor.
I pulled my arms in tight, hiding my bare hands under my vest.
‘No. You of all people must not touch me.’
She had crouched gracefully beside me, but as he hunkered back on his heels, he was my Fool and not Amber at all. There was immense sorrow in his voice as he said, ‘Did you think I would take from you the healing that you did not wish to give me, Fitz?’
The room was spinning and I was too exhausted to hold anything back from him. ‘If you touch me, I fear the Skill will rip through me like a sword through flesh. If it can, it will give you back your eyesight. Regardless of the cost to me. And I believe the cost of restoring your sight will be that I will lose mine.’
The change in his face was startling. Pale as he was, he went whiter until he might have been carved from ice. Emotion tautened the skin of his face, revealing the bones that framed his visage. Scars that had faded stood out like cracks in fine pottery. I tried to focus my gaze on him, but he seemed to move with the room. I felt so nauseous and so weak, and I hated the secret I had to share with him. But there was no hiding it any longer. I wished we were alone but I dared not take the time to clear the others from the room. ‘Fool, we are too close. For every hurt I removed from your flesh my body assumed the wound. Not as virulently as the wounds you carried, but when I healed the knife-stabs in your belly I felt them in mine the next day. When I closed the sores in your back they opened in mine.’
‘I saw those wounds!’ Perseverance gasped. ‘I thought you’d been attacked. Stabbed in the back.’
I did not pause for his words. ‘When I healed the bones around your eye sockets, mine swelled and blackened the next day. If you touch me, Fool—’
‘I won’t!’ he exclaimed. He shot to his feet and staggered blindly away from me. ‘Get out of here. All three of you! Leave now. Fitz and I must speak privately. No, Spark, I will be fine, I can tend to myself. Please go. Now.’
They retreated, but not swiftly. They went in a bunch, with many backward glances. Spark had taken Per’s hand and when they looked back, they showed me the faces of woeful children. Lant went last and his expression was set in a Farseer stare so like his father’s that no one could have mistaken his bloodlines. ‘My chamber,’ he said to them as he shut the door behind them and I knew he would try to keep them safe. I hoped there was no real danger. But I also feared that General Rapskal was not finished with us.
‘Explain,’ the Fool said flatly.
I gathered myself up from the floor. It was far harder than it should have been. I rolled onto my belly, drew my knees up under me until I was on all fours, and then staggered upright. I caught myself on the table’s edge and moved around it until I could reach a chair. My inadvertent healing of first Lant and then Per had extracted the last of my strength. Seated, I dragged in a breath. It was so difficult to keep my head upright. ‘I can’t explain what I don’t understand. It’s never happened with any other Skill-healing I’ve witnessed. Only between you and me. Whatever injury I take from you appears on me.’
He stood, his arms crossed on his chest. He wore his own face, and Amber’s painted lips and rouged cheeks looked peculiar now. His eyes seemed to bore into me. ‘No. Explain why you hid this from me! Why you couldn’t trust me with the simple truth. What did you imagine? That I would demand you blind yourself that I might see?’
‘I… no!’ I braced my elbows on the table and rested my head in my hands. I could not recall when I had felt more drained. A steady pulse of pounding pain in my temples kept pace with my heartbeat. I felt a desperate need to recover my strength but even sitting still was demanding more than I had to give. I wanted to topple over onto the floor and surrender to sleep. I tried to order my thoughts. ‘You were so desperate to regain your sight. I didn’t want to take that hope from you. My plan was that once you were strong enough the coterie could try to heal you, if you would let them. My fear was that if I told you I couldn’t heal you without losing my sight, you’d lose all hope.’ That last piece of the truth was angular and sharp-edged in my mough. ‘And I feared you would think me selfish that I did not heal you.’ I let my head lower onto my folded arms.
The Fool said something.
‘I didn’t hear that.’
‘You weren’t meant to,’ he replied in a low voice. Then he admitted, ‘I called you a clodpole.’
‘Oh.’ I could barely keep my eyes open.
He asked a cautious question. ‘After you’d taken on my hurts. Did they heal?’
‘Yes. Mostly. But very slowly,’ My back still bore the pinkish dimples of the ulcers that had been on his back. ‘Or so it seemed to me. You know how my body has been since that runaway healing the coterie did on me years ago. I scarcely age, and injuries heal overnight, leaving me exhausted. They healed, Fool. Once I knew what was happening, I was more careful. When I worked on the bones around your eyes, I kept strict control.’ I halted. It was a terrifying offer to make. But in our sort of friendship, it had to be made. ‘I could try to heal your eyes. Give you sight, lose mine, and see if my body could restore mine. It would take time. And I am not sure this is the best place for us to make such an attempt. Perhaps in Bingtown, after we’ve sent the others home, we could take rooms somewhere and make the attempt.’
‘No. Don’t be stupid.’ His terse words forbade any response.
In his long silence, sleep crept up on me, seeping into every part of my body. It was that engulfing demand the body makes, one that knows no refusal.
‘Fitz. Fitz? Look at me. What do you see?’
I prised my eyelids open and looked at him. I thought I knew what he needed to hear. ‘I see my friend. My oldest, dearest friend. No matter what guise you wear.’
‘And you see me clearly?’
Something in his voice made me lift my head. I stared at him. After a time, he swam into focus. ‘Yes.’
He let out his pent breath. ‘Good. Because when I touched you I felt something happen, something more than expected. I reached for you, to call you back, for I feared you were vanishing into the Skill-current. But when I touched you it wasn’t as if I touched someone else. It was like folding my hands together. As if your blood suddenly ran through my veins. Fitz, I can see the shape of you, there in your chair. I fear I may have taken something from you.’
‘Oh. Good. I’m glad.’ I closed my eyes, too weary for surprise. Too exhausted for fear.