Read The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince Online

Authors: Robin Hobb

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

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince (5 page)

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

A thousand, a thousand-thousand times I have wished those words unsaid. They were the words that ended my life. My lady went red, and then white, so pale I thought she would faint. And then she whispered, in a voice as cold as a drowned man, “Go hence, Felicity. Sleep in your own bed tonight. Or in his. I’ve no need of you just now.”

‘Just now’ she said, but her voice said ‘anymore.’

I left her bed and crossed the cold room, to enter my little chamber and clamber into my freezing bed. As I huddled there, sleepless, the rest of the night, I heard no weeping from her room. Only a terrible quiet.

I rose in the morning and went to tend her, but found her already up and dressed. Her face was white, her eyes set deep in dark circles. She did not stir from her room that day, nor say more than a dozen words to me. I brought her meals and took them away uneaten. I was pathetically grateful that she did not send me away entirely. My efforts to speak to her went unanswered, and she looked past me, but not at me. The pain of my lie cut me deep for the sorrow it had caused her. Yet I will not deny there was a satisfaction that although she might cut off all contact with Lostler over his supposed infidelity, her love for me, her humble and homely serving maid, was great enough that she did not rebuke me nor send me away. Every time I felt the urge to confess to her, I stifled it, thinking, ‘She will get over her pain, and if I tell her, I will be the one she abandons. I have saved her from going to him, saved her from anyone discovering the truth.’ Thinking this helped me to bear the pain of her exiling me from her thoughts.

Only to my mother did I admit my transgression, and she gave me no cause to doubt my impulse. Instead, she praised me warmly and whispered to me that I was far more clever than she had ever given me credit for. She also spoke urgently of all I had yet to do, saying that the moment the Queen-in-Waiting began to feel the surges of birth I must come to her and tell her. This I agreed to easily. She urged me, also, to mutter against Lostler to the other servants, saying that he had treated me badly in abandoning me once he knew I carried a babe, but this I did not have the courage to do. One lie surely was enough, and even then I suspected that the consequences of it might be deeper than I knew.

And so I continued to serve Caution faithfully, even if she kept me at a cool distance. I pretended that I thought it the result of her pregnancy, and was ever more solicitous of her comforts.

In the days that followed, Caution grew more silent and more wan. She spoke little and was without spirit. She ceased all efforts to defy her chaperone Lady Hope, but was as docile as a cow as she sat with her sewing untouched in her lap. She would not walk in the gardens, or descend to the Great Hall for music. Word of her bleak spirits spread through the court. At her command, many a visitor I turned away from her door. Finally, the king himself, his face lined with his grief, came to her. Him I could not turn away; instead, he sent me from her room, but I crouched on the floor by the door to my chamber and listened.

He did not comfort her with gentle words of forgiveness and encouragement. Instead, he spoke gravely, telling her that he knew she now realized how foolish she had been and what a grave error she had committed. He admitted to her that had she been his son, folk would have shrugged off her breach of conduct. But she was not and neither one of them could change that. Then he told her, bluntly, that many of his nobles had come to him asking that he set her and her unborn child aside as heir, and instead put the crown of King-in-Waiting on the raven locks of his young nephew Canny Farseer.

I peered through the crack to see her lift her head at those words. “And would you do that, Father?”

He was silent for a long time. Then he asked her, “What would your will be in this, Caution?”

She said nothing for so long that I, and probably her father, thought she would say it would be for the best if she stepped aside. I feared she had lost the spirit to claim a throne. Then she said, “I have lost so many things. My mother is gone; she will never dance at my wedding. If I ever wed, it will not be as the cherished virgin daughter that you hoped to celebrate. I have disappointed and shamed you. I have disappointed and shamed myself, to give my heart and body to a man who was worthy of neither. And I have cheated the child that grows within me; the babe will have no father to defend him, no name save my own, no future except what I can bestow.” She took a deep breath and when she let it out, she squared her shoulders. “Father, please do not take my crown and future. Please let me show you that I can be worthy of both, and that I can rear a child who is worthy to carry the Farseer name and wear the crown of the Six Duchies.”

For a time the king sat silently, thinking. Then he nodded slowly. He did not say a word after that, not even a farewell, but rose and left her chamber.

The next day when she rose she called me to her. She did not speak kindly or cruelly but directed me to arrange a bath for her, scented with lavender, and to lay out an assortment of dresses that might still fit her well despite her belly, and to put out hose and low shoes and such jewelry as was of the best quality without being girlish. I hastened to obey her, with no complaint that she had given me all the work that half a dozen women would usually do for her. I felt only happiness that she seemed to believe I could do it all and well, and that she had not called her staff back to attend her.

Dressed and groomed, she descended. She ate in the Great Hall, where all might see and know that she had arisen from her gloom. She was subdued, but there was a fiery anger that glinted in her eyes. I wondered who would be the target for it, but when she made it known that she wished to call a general assembly of all the dukes, duchesses and lesser nobles then present at Buckkeep I wondered no longer. She commanded, too, that the four senior minstrels attend, to witness and then to carry the account of the assembly out to the land. By this, I knew she had a plan, for to call such a council usurped her father’s right to do so. It was the first time she had truly behaved as if she were a Queen-in-Waiting, calling upon the power that someday would be entirely hers.

When all the higher nobles then visiting Buckkeep were gathered, and all the lesser nobles present at the keep were standing in the audience hall, she stood up and said, “No king do I need now, or ever, to share my bed or my throne or even to get me a child. For I have these things already, bed, throne, and heir, and I shall never share them with any man. Have no doubt about the throne and the crown of the Six Duchies. I will be your queen, and my child will reign after me. I will not wed, and there will be no other children to challenge my child’s claim. You have only to look at me to know that my child will be well-born, taking from me the Farseer bloodlines that pass on the right to rule. No other heir could be named who could carry more of that bloodline than my child does. So be content with the heir that I will give to you. I need no husband and my child needs no father.”

Although these furious words were intended for the ears of the aristocracy she must have known that they would spread much farther than the walls of that room. Her nobles took her words to mean that a member of the nobility had fathered her child. As far as I know, she did nothing to correct that idea.

I doubt that the evening stars had appeared that winter day before Stablemaster Lostler had heard how little she needed or wanted him. I thought surely that he would find some way to contact her then. But either he did not or he failed in his attempt. Perhaps her abandonment of their meetings followed by this pronouncement that she needed no man cut his love at the root. Or perhaps he had never loved her at all. Perhaps he was relieved she did not name him nor seek him out. If what he had done to her had become common knowledge, there would have been only one fate for him.

I think perhaps Caution expected some sort of response from him. In the days that followed she seemed on edge, as if waiting for something. I would be about my tasks in her chambers and look up to find her staring at me, as if measuring my belly or comparing my form to hers to see why he might have wanted me. It was only later, when I looked back over that time, that I realized that she never doubted me. She never questioned me about my supposed tryst with her lover, never asked how many times I’d been with him or if he’d muttered fond words to me. She believed me. She trusted me.

I have to believe, then, that she loved me. Loved me more than she loved him, that she had such faith in my word. To my knowledge, she never even gave him the chance to claim he had been faithful to her. My hasty words had cut him from her heart.

Days turned to weeks turned to months. Time crawls and rushes with pregnancy. I was more aware of the Queen-in-Waiting’s pregnancy than my own. Caution did not retire from court life, but plunged into it, yet not to dance and gamble and listen to the minstrels as she once had. Instead she applied herself to learning its inner workings. She began to have a care for where the supplies came from for the seamstresses and spinners, for the cooks and the warriors. Some few times she visited the judgment chambers and listened to her father solve disputes, but chiefly she involved herself in the domestic aspects of Buckkeep, and I think that pleased her father very much.

A few times I found her at her window, looking down on the courtyard and the stables beyond it. Lostler exercised the Spotted Stud daily, as he always had. I suspect he took great comfort in his beast companion, as those who have the Wit-magic do. She could not help but see him take the big stallion out. Once she caught me watching her and shrugged. “It is scarcely worth my while paying the keep for that beast now that I can no longer ride him. I should sell him at the next fair; I have read that it is good to change the stallions in a stable, to keep the breeding blood fresh.” And I nodded but did not think she could ever bring herself to do it. Even then, I believed that sooner or later she would go down to her lover, find a way to have words with him, and that my deceit might be discovered. I dreaded it and feared it, but mostly I treasured every moment that I had her to myself again.

The winter turned to spring, and the babes in our bellies kicked and turned. The court seemed almost to have accepted the Queen-in-Waiting’s solo production of an heir. There was gossip still and speculation and rumor, but they seemed to hold back their judgment of her. Her father, I know, was pleased with her more subdued air and her attention to the business of the keep, and perhaps her nobles were as well. At least, there was no more talk of replacing her. No noble youths came to court her anymore, true, but it seemed to me that the more mature of her nobles now cast a considering eye on her, and I thought that, after the babe was born, she might find a different crop of suitors coming to call, despite her renunciation of any husband.

She carried the final months of her pregnancy well, for the morning sickness left her. She even began to go out and about, though only within the keep. She took tea with her ladies, and visited again the weaving and sewing rooms, and sat by the great hearth in the evenings with her ladies to hear the minstrels sing.

The Cattle and Horse Fair was always held in spring, and so it came that year. It scarcely seemed that it could have been a full two years since first she had beheld the Spotted Stud and his stuttering groom, and yet it was. It was one of her noble friends who artlessly reminded her of this, asking her if she would not go down in a pony cart to take in the sights of the fair that she had once so enjoyed. The Queen-in-Waiting, standing near her window, hand on her belly, had smiled bitterly and replied that she was far too heavy to contemplate even the short journey by cart to the fair. One of her ladies, thinking to be witty, asked if she did not wish to ride her Spotted Stud there. I could not be sure I heard a knife hidden in that question but I suspected one. I lifted my eyes from my sewing and looked directly at her, but the lady was smiling sweetly, with no hint of malice that I could see.

I saw Caution flinch at her question, and took that as my answer. It stung. Had she made that lady privy to a secret that she had not entrusted even to me? Or had the lady divined it on her own? It did not matter. Some knew, or at least suspected. Cold rose in my heart and the babe in my womb squirmed uneasily. It was a danger to my lady, one I could not ignore. I had been a fool not to see it earlier. Head bent over my sewing, I looked through my lashes around the room at her gathered women. Some were there who had never before been in her circle.

Of course.

Anyone party to such a secret, anyone who asked a pointed question might then use that knowledge as a lever to raise her social standing. It pained me to see Caution like a stag surrounded by slavering hounds. I vowed to myself that I’d do all I could to see her not pulled down. I seethed in meek silence, wishing to kill them all.

But first, I must deal with the Stablemaster. He and his Spotted Stud must be sent away, banished to somewhere he could never, by word or look, betray the Queen-in-Waiting. If I had been a man, perhaps I would have thought of ways to kill him. But I was a woman and guile is a woman’s best weapon, my mother had always taught me. And so I waited until the next morning when she was looking out the window and sighing to herself as Lostler stood in the stableyard and groomed the Spotted Stud. No other ladies were present, and I placed myself at her elbow and said softly, “I know it grieves you to look on that beast and know you cannot ride him. Soon you will be a mother, and after that, eventually the queen of all the Six Duchies. I know you can see he is no longer a fitting and proper mount for you. You should sell him now, just as you bought him. Send him out of your life and out of your thoughts. Once he is gone, you will not have to look at him and remember your wild adventures with him.”

I spoke so carefully, and looked only at the horse, but I knew how she would hear my words. I felt her hesitation as she said, “Perhaps I should.”

So I pushed her to the deed. “The horse fair lasts but another three days. Be decisive, my queen. Send him hence, out of your life. Let no one see your regrets, and others will recognize your strength in setting him out of your life. They will see that truly you are ready to bestride a throne instead of a Spotted Stud.” She was still silent and staring, but her hurt showing in her glistening eyes. I had to push harder. “Let everyone see you stand alone and strong, needing no one else to make your decisions for you.”

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Renegade by Nancy Northcott
Glad Tidings by Debbie Macomber
Ryelee's Cowboy by Kathleen Ball
The Best of Joe Haldeman by Joe W. Haldeman, Jonathan Strahan
The Vlakan King (Book 3) by Jim Greenfield
Jars of Clay by Lee Strauss
A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James