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 (6 page)

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
5.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

She glanced at me, and then her eyes fell to my belly. She clenched her lips in a flat line and said nothing. A moment later, she resolutely crossed the room to a bell-pull, and summoned a page. Her words were terse. “I have decided to sell the Spotted Stud at the horse fair. He shall go to the first bidder, regardless of the offer. We have plenty and more than enough of his get at Buckkeep. It is time to send him away. I wish him taken there immediately.”

The boy bowed. “I shall tell the Stablemaster immediately.”

The Queen-in-Waiting shook her head. “No. Do not bother him with it. He will argue and it is a decision I have already made. Have the keep’s smith take him away right now. Tie him to the tail of a cart and take him down to the market grounds. He cannot fight his way free of that.”

“As you wish, your highness.”

The boy departed and Caution returned to the window to stand and watch.

Now the smith was a man with little love for the Stablemaster Lostler. He was the brother of the Stablemaster the Queen-in-Waiting had dismissed, and so he harbored a grudge against the man who had taken his brother’s position and livelihood. All knew this. And so when the page brought the word to him, I am certain the man did not delay, but set aside his hammer and hung up his apron and brought his heavy smithy cart around to the stableyard.

We saw him pull up his cart and stride into the stables. He carried a heavy length of chain. He was a massive man, tall as well as heavily muscled. Lostler had put the stud back in his stall and was working with a young bay filly in the exercise yard. The smith did not pause to speak to him. We were high above the stables, but even so, the stallion’s scream of fury reached us. Caution leaned forward on the stone sill, staring out, her eyes wide in her pale face, her mouth set. Hurt warred with the satisfaction of revenge on her features. I saw what she strove to do. She would sell away Lostler’s Wit-companion, tear from him that which he loved as she believed he had torn her love for him.

There was a second scream from the horse, and we saw Lostler call hastily to a groom who came to take the mare from him. The Stablemaster turned and ran back into the stables. For three breaths, all was calm below us. The groom began to lunge the mare, a stablehand approached the door with a barrow full of feed, while two young stableboys, brooms on their shoulders, followed him in.

But a moment later, the boys and the man with the barrow came scrambling back out. We heard shouts and saw men running both toward and away from the stables. A moment later, locked together, Lostler and the smith emerged. The smith was dragging Lostler by his shirt front. The Stablemaster’s face was bloodied, but he was still fighting, landing blow after blow on the impassive smith. We could hear the stallion’s angry screams from inside the stable. The smith drew the Stablemaster up to his full height, struck him a tremendous blow in the face and then dropped him disdainfully into the dust. Lostler fell bonelessly to the earth. The smith did not even look down at him, but strode back into the stable.

And Caution’s resolution failed her. “Lostler! No! What have I done?” she wailed as she stared down at the man’s still body. And then, moving more swiftly than she had in weeks, she spun away from the window and ran across the room. She was out the door while I was still staring after her. By the time I reached the hall, she was halfway down the stairs, running as no pregnant woman should. “My queen, mind your child!” I called after her, but she did not pause. And so I gathered my skirts and went after her, hampered by my own heaviness.

I was not as swift as she was. I was out of breath by the time I reached the bottom of the stairs. The best I could manage was a brisk walk, but when I heard her screams, I gritted my teeth and ran again. I pushed past other servants hurrying to see what the commotion was. By the time I emerged into the stable yard, a crowd had gathered. I shoved my way recklessly through the useless, shouting crowd, and still arrived too late.

I cannot say what had gone before. I saw the Spotted Stud, blood pouring from his chest as he reared to the sky, hooves flailing. He screamed, but it sounded like more anguish than pain. The Queen-in-Waiting, her hands lifted defensively against the stallion’s attack, cowered in the mud by the Stablemaster’s body. He was dying. She had tried to gather his body into her lap but his hands reached toward the Spotted Stud. As he fell back against her, dead or dying, I saw the unfurling rose of blood that was blossoming on his chest. Something had stabbed him; his blood was a bright red rose on the breast of his pale shirt. The smith stood over the Queen-in-Waiting, between her and the infuriated Spotted Stud, pitch fork in his knotted hands, stout legs braced for the next attack. Blood reddened the tines of the fork.

My mind leapt to the conclusion: the horse had attacked and he had fended it off, and then defended himself against the Stablemaster. As I watched in horror, the horse came down as the man thrust up. The fork sank deep into the stud’s chest, and then the animal tore it free of the smith’s grip as he fell forward onto it. The handle of the fork struck the smith a terrible blow. With a final scream, the dying stallion collapsed less than an arm’s length from Caution. Blood fountained from his wounds and blew out on his fading scream. Gouts of his blood, from both his black hide and his white, leaped onto her dress, wetting her to the very skin. At that touch, she shrieked as if scalded, and fell onto Lostler’s breast as if to shield him.

The blood blotched her with scarlet. The horse bared his teeth and then sank down, dead, his muzzle touching his master’s lax hand. Half in Caution’s lap, Lostler suddenly sagged, as lifeless as his horse. Stablemaster and Spotted Stud were both dead.

Sounds ebbed to one instant of silence, then rose in a roar of shrieks, shouts and exclamations. But I heard only the Queen-in-Waiting’s shrill scream, which went on and on and stopped only when she crumpled senseless, spattered and soaked with blood from both horse and man.

“Get back, let me through!” I was shrieking, but no one heeded me. They all surged forward like hounds ringing a kill, and I was pushed back and to one side. I could not so much as touch the dripping hem of her skirt as she was gathered up and carried back toward the doors.

As I could not get close to her there, I thought to be clever and forced my aching legs to hurry ahead of the throng and run up the stairs to her chambers. Surely they would bring her there, I thought, and I would be waiting. But they didn’t. The fainting Queen-in-Waiting was borne off, at the king’s command, to her mother’s chambers, adjacent to his own. The king’s own healer was summoned to attend her. By the time I realized my error and went there, a dozen other ladies had won entrance before me. I could scarcely get close to the door, but the muttered gossip I heard shocked me. When they had stripped the bloodied clothing from her body, they had discovered that some of it was hers. Queen Caution had awakened from her faint calling for the Stablemaster, and then gasping in pain as the sudden cramps took her. In the midst of her grief, her child was struggling to be born.

I fled to my mother.

I think she was waiting for me. Her latest ward was asleep, but she had kept to the room where she had put him down. The hearth fire burned quietly, snapping and muttering to itself. A pot of tea, freshly made, steamed beside it. The babe’s mother had rushed off to join in the general clamor about the Queen-in-Waiting, so we were alone when I sank to the floor beside my mother’s chair and leaned my head against her knee. “It was terrible,” I said. “They have taken her from me and I don’t know what to do.”

My mother jerked her knee away from me. “Stop being stupid. That’s the first thing, Felicity.” I straightened up and stared at her. Against my will, tears filled my eyes at her harsh tone. She ignored them. “I wish you had listened better to me before, but there is no time to rebuke you now. Sit up, listen, and do as I say: you may yet have a chance to keep your position, and perhaps find a better life for the child you carry.”

She arose from her chair and stepped away from me. I stood more slowly and followed her as she went to her clothing chest and opened it. From the corner of it, she took a small cloth bag and pushed it into my hand. It weighed nearly nothing. “I prepared this for you two months ago,” she told me proudly. Clearly she expected me to be grateful. “Brew it as a tea and drink it quickly. Do not allow yourself to vomit it up, no matter how your stomach heaves. As soon as you feel your pains begin, come to me, here, and I myself will deliver your child in my room. There we will keep him or her safe and quiet and unsuspected for now. Then will come your time to be brave and strong. For you must arise from the birth bed, pad your belly out as if you still carry a child, and find a way to gain access to Caution.

“Do not fear that she will deliver her child before yours is born. No matter how hearty they seem, the high-born ones always make much of pushing out a babe, as if they were the very first one to ever do so, or as if there were some great talent to it. She will take her time. Your task will be to get to her side and to remain, as you ever have been, her first and most reliable servant.”

I was gaping at her. When I found breath to speak, I asked, “Why? Why must my child be born this day, and why must I conceal it from everyone?”

She looked at me as if I were simple. “If I did not know you were mine, I would think an idiot mothered you!” she snapped. “There are two paths opening before you. You must be ready for them. The first is that you must be in milk when the new prince or princess is born, so that you can be the wet-nurse for the child. You have the right to that position, and you must not let it be snatched away from you. And the second…”

She lowered her voice and beckoned me closer, speaking in a whisper. “All new-born babes look alike. I will tell you that is true, no matter what anyone says. As they grow, they may reflect the looks of their mother or father or both. But in this situation, no one save the Queen-in-Waiting is in a position to say what the father of her child looked like. And thus, when you carry off one infant to nurse, and return to put another in his place, no one will be the wiser.”

I stared at her, trying to order her words to make sense. “What child?” I asked, even as the immensity of what she suggested dawned on me.

“Your child, stupid girl. My grandchild. If the gods favor us, your babe will match the sex of the Farseer heir. You will whisk her babe away, to wash and nurse it. And you will bring back to her a tidy, well-wrapped child who will someday sit on the throne of the Six Duchies.”

“But why?”

“Why not?” she snapped. “What silliness says that a child born to this woman is born to be a king, and the child of that woman born to grub in a field? Why not lift a seed of our family to be a king or queen? We will keep the secret and you will raise your own babe, gowning him in silk and wrapping him in furs. Someday, when he is old enough to possess the secret, you will tell him that which he will know he must keep private. And then you, and I and your father and your siblings will live more generously than ever we have before, partaking of the largesse of a royal heir. Don’t you see, my dear Felicity? All is within our grasp, if only you are bold enough. I stepped forward and changed your life for you, as the cost of giving you up. Now you can take the next step. Put your child on a throne.”

She made it sound so simple. My mind chased itself in circles. As I sat, transfixed by her words, she shook her head at me and snatched the little bag of herbs from my hand. She refilled her cup of tea, dumped in the contents of the little bag, and stirred it well. We were silent as it steeped. When she handed it to me, I asked her, “And what will become of Caution’s child?”

“We will pass it off as yours, of course,” she said. Then, as I took my first sip of the brew she handed me, she added, “At first. He cannot be raised near Buckkeep, of course, in case the resemblance is too pronounced. If he is healthy enough, we have a cousin in Tilth who will foster him for us.”

I took another swallow. I had expected it to be bitter. It was not. It was aromatic, almost pleasant. “I’ve never heard that I had cousins in Tilth.”

She shook her head impatiently. “There is much you do not know, raised so much away from me. Drink it down quickly now, all at once. Then, go back to your chambers and make sure all is ready for the Queen-in-Waiting’s child. Do not vomit. The pains will start soon enough. Come to me then, and not before.”

I did as she told me. She was correct in every way. My belly soon wished to be rid of her brew, but I clenched my teeth and would not gag. And when the pains started, I hurried back to her. I had seen women in labor, and been present at a birth or two that Caution had also attended. I knew how it should go, the slow increasing of the cramp and the gradual readying of woman’s body. This was not like that. Whatever my mother had given me rushed my body through the process. She had prepared everything for me, in the little room that was her own. There was water, and rags in plenty, and a blanket in which to wrap the child. She came and went as I gasped my way through my birthing. She had commanded me to silence, so I bit on a twist of rag to hold in my screams. Finally my little son was born in a gush of water and fluid, and my mother exclaimed in dismay at the sight of him.

“What’s this?” she demanded of me, as if she had asked for meat and I’d given her fish. “So tiny! And look at his hair! Reddish gold! What were you thinking, girl? The Queen-in-Waiting’s hair is black and so is the Stablemaster’s, just like yours. Could not you find a dark-haired man to lie down with you?”

I was still panting with the effort of birthing him and had little patience for her rebuke. “If I had known the ruse you intended,” I began, but when I saw her eyes narrow in fury, I simply said, “Let me see him.”

“Soon enough,” she replied, setting my boy aside. “Clean yourself first and pad your belly a bit. You must be on your feet and back by Caution’s side as quickly as you can. As soon as you’re ready, we’ll let him suckle a bit to bring your milk in. But now is no time to linger here. Who knows our luck? It may be that the Queen-in-Waiting’s child will be unremarkable, and no one at court knows who the father was. You may yet be able to make the switch.”

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
5.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Beach Hut Next Door by Veronica Henry
Ashes to Ashes by Melissa Walker
Laura Matthews by A Baronets Wife
Jessica Meigs - The Becoming by Brothers in Arms
Letters From Home by Kristina McMorris
Dead Shot by Gunnery SGT. Jack Coughlin, USMC (Ret.) with Donald A. Davis
Dare by Glenna Sinclair