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Authors: Robin Hobb

Tags: #Fiction, #Epic, #Robin Hobb, #Fantasy, #high fantasy, #Farseer

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince (2 page)

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
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As she got older and her presence was required more often in formal settings it was I who fastened her slippers and fluffed her skirts and smoothed her jet black hair before she went out the door. And when, as often happened, the occasion ended in a royal tantrum by the over-tired child, I was the one they sent for, to coax and pet her back into a cooperative frame of mind and get her to bed.

As she grew, Princess Caution demanded her way in larger things. From refusing any skirts but her yellow ones she went to demanding a cascade of stylish and elaborate garments. She would not eat the meat of cattle nor swine nor fowl, but only on venison would she dine, morning, noon and night, winter or summer. And so the huntsman must hunt and the butcher must dress his kills all year round to make sure her meals pleased her, even when the season was not right for the taking of a deer. Her father, taking a stand with her at last, declared that perhaps his daughter would be more reasonable if she saw the extent of the work that her habits required. Thus, she was less than ten when he took her on her first hunt. It troubled me, for I did not like horses and did not ride with pleasure. But Princess Caution insisted I must accompany her and, as I always did, I gave way to her.

If her father had thought to dissuade Caution, that hunt was the wrong tack to take. She rode well, as she had from the first time she was set on a horse, and kept up easily with the lead riders. She saw the stag brought to bay, saw the dogs bring him down and be whipped off him, and took no discouragement from any of the wild and bloody scene. I was spared that sight for I had lagged far behind the pack and only caught up with the party as they were preparing to return home. But I might as well have been there, because for days afterwards the princess talked of little else.

In one regard the king succeeded, for his daughter became a huntress in her own right, and expanded her diet to include any game that she herself brought down. So she provided pheasant and duck for the table, venison in plenty and even wild boar as she grew stronger and more capable. Only when hunting did she abandon my company, but as it put her often at her father’s side and among his nobles, the king rejoiced in his offspring’s new-found interest. So I took care not to interfere, even if it did put her outside my influence. Instead, I became the willing listener for every exploit she cared to share with me. Indeed, I think that my own clumsiness on horseback and squeamishness at the blood delighted her. For so long I had been her elder and always the better at whatever we did. When I saw how pleased she was to have bested me, I took care never to compete with her, but always expressed my wonder at all she could do.

I realized then that she was growing up. As the difference in our stations became more and more clear to her, I took care not to overstep my place. And so, although I attended her lessons with her, and cut her pens and mixed her ink, I was careful that she never discovered that I could both read and cipher as well as she could. I took care to study at night, borrowing her scrolls while she slept, ensuring they were always back on her desk as if they had never been touched before dawn. It was the same when she received her lessons in history and later, in diplomacy and deportment. By then she was a young woman, wearing a simple tiara to show her rank. I sat on a low stool at her feet as the minstrels who sang the histories performed for her. I listened to her father’s ministers as they lectured her on the dangers of Chalced and the intricacies of striking advantageous trade agreements with Bingtown. I learned what she did, and applied it, not to foreign powers, but to the shifting tides of influence within the court. I never forgot my common birth and lack of standing, but that does not mean I did not find ways to circumvent these obstacles.

As the court began to surround my princess with ambitious young noblewomen and eligible young lords, I learned to navigate my way through them. Given my plain face, evading the interest of the young males was easier than weathering the vicious storms of young female politics. Some of her companions resented me and took every opportunity to humiliate me. Others saw me as a path to her favor and courted me with kind words and small gifts. I would be hard pressed to say which were the more dangerous. By day, I took care to be correct and unobtrusive. But in the evenings, when I was brushing out the princess’s hair or folding her clothing to put away for the night, I told her any gossip I had heard, and spoke of which young woman I’d seen exchanging a token with a young man who was already pledged to another, and giggled with her over which girl was cursed with garlicky breath and which young man suffered from warts on his hands. I was her confidante, ever attentive and never critical of her. And if one in her circle had treated me with less than kindness, perhaps Caution heard more about that person’s unkind comments about her hair, or dress, or skin. And if the princess became a bit cooler toward them, well, it was no more than they deserved.

At seventeen, grown to woman, the princess received the crown of the Queen-in-Waiting, as has always been our tradition in the Six Duchies. From now until the death of her father bestowed the throne on her, her royal training to rule would be in earnest. She would sit in the judgment chamber when nobles sought arbitration from the monarchy, to learn and eventually to share in the decisions they passed down. She would deal with diplomats and ambassadors from foreign countries, and travel within her own realm so that her dukes and duchesses should come to know and respect her. And suitable mates would be paraded before her. So, at least, was the purpose of that position.

Queen-in-Waiting Caution was not, perhaps, as dedicated as an heir should be but, as she confided to me, both her parents were in excellent health and had run the kingdom well for many years. Why interfere now, and spend decades in anxious waiting for an event she hoped was many years away? Now was her time to be young and to enjoy her life in a way that she never could once she was queen. Soon enough, she would have to bow her head to the heavy weight of a crown.

Soon her nobles muttered that at a time when she should have been learning the tasks of a ruler, Queen-in-Waiting Caution was instead learning only to indulge herself. Many a suitor was paraded before her, and many a noble son she spurned. By day and in public she gave polite excuses, saying she was too young as yet or that she wished to know herself better before she chose a mate for life. But in the evenings, as I brushed out her hair, she spoke her mind bluntly to me. That one was too fair, and the next one too dark. The Farrow lad giggled like a girl when he laughed and the one from Tilth brayed like a donkey. That one was too thin; nights with him would be like sleeping in the kindling pile. Another was too fleshy; she would be smothered in his embrace.

“What, then, do you want in a man?” I dared to ask her. A thin shard of green jealousy stabbed my heart but I took care not to show it. I was unlikely to marry well and when I did my duties to my husband would likely take me from Caution’s side. Once wed, my future would narrow to a swelling belly and a future as a wet-nurse, forever pregnant or tending children not my own. A husband I would have to find, eventually. But my heart did not cry out for a man. I drew the tortoiseshell comb slowly through Queen-in-Waiting Caution’s sleek black hair, savoring the soft threading of it through my hands. I had all I needed there at my fingertips, for I loved her with all my being.

She had been pondering my words. Now she smiled. “Away, away with all of them! I shall choose my own man when the time is right, and only to please myself, for what else truly will matter? I will be queen, Felicity! Queen! I will know all I need to rule, and the decisions will be mine. What is the use of being queen if I cannot even choose my own mate? For now, while I have you, I need no man to share my bed.” And she laughed as she turned to smile at me, and I smiled in return.

From my mother, I had learned that although all noble ladies must be virgins when they first wed, it did not mean they must be strangers to pleasure. And in that duty I had served my queen well and willingly since before we had been women.

But my question had set her mind on a different track of thought. She cocked her head at the mirror and a single furrow divided her brow. “And I am not at all sure that I will ever wish to share my throne or the powers that go with it.”

“But what of getting an heir to the Farseer throne?” I dared to ask her.

“When the time for one is needed, I am sure there will be plenty of candidates,” she said carelessly.

I wondered that she could care so little about it. It was true that she had cousins, and that they were well aware of the line of inheritance should Caution never bear a child. I knew that eventually her duchies would demand that Queen-in-Waiting Caution take a husband and produce an heir. Yet for now I was secretly well-pleased that she felt no need of a man in her bed. I, too, felt that our current arrangement was pleasant enough.

Her eighteenth birthday came and went, and then her nineteenth, and she showed no sign of choosing a mate. All the while she was most willful, not only in her own ways, but in encouraging the young women of her court to live as they chose regardless of what their fathers or mothers might say.

And, as the minstrels have sung, “Still the king and queen replied, ‘Yes, sweet Queen-in-Waiting Caution. So it shall be.’ For it seemed they could deny her nothing.”

I shall not deny the truth of that song, but I will say that there was far more to Queen-in-Waiting Caution than the tales tell.

As her twentieth birthday approached, her nobles became more restless. Yet neither King Virile nor Queen Capable would listen to those who suggested Queen-in-Waiting Caution might be better off wedded and bedded. The Duke of Bearns, who had offered a son, said, “A woman bears easiest when she is young and strong of back.”

The Duchess of Farrow, who had offered a nephew said, “Quench her woman’s passions in a bed before she comes to the throne. She will rule better so.”

The Duke and Duchess of Tilth, who had offered her a choice of their twin sons suggested, “The throne teeters on just a single heir. Let her wed young and mother many, to be sure the line is strong.”

The Duchess of Shoaks, who had six daughters of her own waiting to wed, declared, “Let the princess choose a man soon so that others will know the berth is taken and be free to court other fair and noble maidens.”

Only the Duke and Duchess of Buck were silent in these things. For the Duke of Buck was the king’s own younger brother, Strategy Farseer, and he had been bound well and tight to his name. He looked down on his little son Canny growing strong and straight and made no murmur that Queen-in-Waiting Caution had neither wed nor produced an heir to the throne. If the crown should happen to fall upon his own son’s head, I knew he would not mind the bump.

These things I saw and knew. More than once, I tried to speak of them to Caution. But even though I was as well schooled as she was she dismissed my thoughts as the gossiping of her servant rather than the warning of a friend. A friend, I might add, who had been as close to her for many years as if I were her sibling, and loved her more truly than any of the ladies who fawned upon her. She dismissed my advice that she should soon choose for herself, or all choices might be taken from her. And that brought pain to me, for I had believed she thought more highly of me than that.

But willful she was. And still I loved her.

It was not just in men that the Queen-in-Waiting would listen only to herself, but also in horseflesh. It happened in Buckkeep one summer, in that time when all bring horses and cattle to trade and breed, that a Chalcedean trader came likewise with his wares. On a ship he brought them, for at that time Shoaks was so wroth with the Duke of Chalced that the Duke would not suffer any Chalcedean folk to cross his lands. This trader was a sly fellow, far too thin for an honest man, with a patch on one eye, and a wet way of talking so that he hissed like a spitting snake when he spoke. All turned a wary eye on him and little he sold that first day. So I noticed, for I was there, sent by Queen-in-Waiting Caution herself to look over the Cattle and Horse Fair that year and bring back news of anything worth seeing.

Now among his wares this odd trader had a spotted horse—not dappled nor speckled, mind you, but blotted in great ugly spots, like a fruit that has taken blight, or a poorly-dyed blanket, or a milk cow. Black-and-white he was, with a rolling blue eye on one side of his head and a dark staring one on the other. Big was this beast, and a stud, unruly of temper, screaming out his challenges to any stallion that came near and snuffing and stamping after every passing mare. He was a nuisance and a danger, and twice the guards had to be called to quell the beast. They warned the Chalcedean that he had best keep his horse to rights, or he would be thrown out of the fair. But each time, when the guards arrived, they found the Spotted Stud standing docile as a lamb, and at his head, holding his halter, a youth of strange mien.

He was not garbed well, but rather as a servant and a ragged one at that. He was silent in his ways, his eyes always cast down, and he spoke few words, fair or ill to the guards for when he did speak he stuttered so that it took him three times as long to say whatever he had in his mind as it should have. Only to the horse he spoke frequently, in a breath so soft none could make out the words, but always the rambunctious horse turned docile as an old mare at his utterances. Things are said of him now that none know if they are true or not: that he never in his days ate meat, but oft was seen standing beside his horse, chewing a stem of grass. Some say the nails of his hands were as thick and yellow as a horse’s hooves. Others that his laugh was a whinny and that when he was angered he pawed at the earth and stamped. I can say with absolute certainty that many of the things now said of him are rankest nonsense, and only spoken aloud to justify all that came afterward.

So when I went back to my mistress, I admit I spoke of the Chalcedean trader, and of the spotted horse and the man who tended it. But not, I swear, in a way to turn her head with thoughts of either one.

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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