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 (7 page)

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
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I listened to her. As I always had. Sometimes it seems odd to me that a mother so little present in my life could command me so, and at other times it seems that I had had so little of her that of course I would take of her whatever I could get. Perhaps if I had loved the baby’s father, perhaps if I had anticipated his birth with joy, then I would have felt differently. But strange to say, I had always thought more of Caution’s baby than my own, always wondered if her child would carry too much of the father’s features. So when at last my mother handed me my bundled child and commanded me to give him suck, it simply seemed another task I must learn to do. I felt no wonder over his tiny hands or wisp of reddish hair. Instead, I saw how small he was. I put him to my breast, and he suckled a little, and then almost immediately fell asleep. “Don’t let him do that,” my mother warned me and gave him a little jostle so that he opened his eyes. He nursed for a slightly longer time, then again dozed off.

“He doesn’t seem very hearty,” I said hesitantly. I feared she would rebuke me.

“Well, he isn’t,” she said bluntly. “You were late at your task, and so he’s had to come early. Another month in the womb would have been better for him, but I’ve seen smaller children survive. He’ll sleep a lot and you’ll have to pinch him a bit to get him to nurse well. Here. Give him to me. I’ve plenty of milk still. And you have somewhere else to be.”

She took my child and in my hand put a nosegay of flowers. She smiled proudly. “While you were getting ready to push him out, I went to the Women’s Garden. Those will win you a place at the Queen-in-Waiting’s side. It’s an old remedy. Tell the women that you must hold them for her to breathe their fragrance between pangs. They will strengthen her. Now, off you go. And remember that I loved you enough to do all this for you.”

I left her. Her words echoed an old memory.

As I trudged away from her room and then down the endless stair, my body ached all over and all I longed to do was sleep. Instead, I was thinking of how I would get in to see Caution and wondering how her labor progressed. I knew she had not had her child yet. When she did, every horn and drum in the castle would sound, and riders would be sent out to each of the other duchies. I clutched my flowers and prayed they would let me in. And I thought of my own child not a bit. Only later did that seem odd to me, that although I had felt him grow and move inside me, he had never seemed real to me at all.

It looked as if the entire female populace of Buckkeep Castle had convened on the stairs and in the hall outside the Queen-in-Waiting’s chamber. The signs among the gossiping knots of women were ominous. Hair had been loosened and sashes, too; and the laces of gowns and shoes were all undone and dangling. My heart caught and then surged painfully on. I knew what it meant. Caution was having a hard time giving birth. I hesitated on the stairs, and then a maid bearing a cushion with a gleaming knife on it hurried past me. I gasped and fell in behind her, carrying my bouquet before me as if we were both part of the same errand. The clustered women parted to let us pass, falling silent as we did so and then filling the air with whispers in our wake. As if by magic, the heavy wooden doors to the old queen’s bedchamber opened before us. The king’s men who guarded it lifted their crossed spears to let us pass. Unchallenged, I followed her in.

There were three midwives in the room, all wearing white aprons and with their sleeves rolled back. One was an old woman enthroned in a chair at the foot of the curtained bed. Of Caution I could see nothing, and heard only her harsh panting. The second midwife was a woman of middle years who bustled up to take both knife and cushion from the maid. She handed it off to the youngest, a matronly woman of at least thirty years. She dropped to her knees by the bed and carefully pushed the pillow and knife under the bed, promising, “This will cut your pain, my dear. A knife under the bed never fails to ease it.”

The second midwife seemed to notice me abruptly. “Who let you in?” she demanded, advancing threateningly on me. “Who are you?” The other two closed ranks like guards, blocking me from the bed.

“I am Queen-in-Waiting Caution’s handmaid, as I have been since her infancy. And long has it been promised to me that I should be wet-nurse for her child as well.” I lied with wild abandon. I would have claimed to be the king if I had thought it would win me a way to her side. I hear her long groan of building pain. My poor Caution suffered. Then, “Lostler,” she hissed, heedless of who might hear her agonized cry. “Lostler!” she said, more loudly, and then, as all three midwives bustled back to the curtained bed, “Lostler!” she shrieked, a drawn-out scream of physical pain and heartfelt anguish.

Her pain tore through me, slicing a new torment of my own. For she cried out for him, the man who had caused her all this trouble, rather than me, who had always helped her. Nevertheless, I held up in my shaking hands the nosegay of flowers my mother had prepared for me and said, “For long and long, the women of my family have suckled the children of the nobility. Many old cures are known to us, and I hold in my hands one that will ease her pain and help her bring her child into the world.”

The old midwife scowled at me: well did I know of her long rivalry with my mother. I had heard her say that cows should not give themselves airs in regards to matters beyond their knowledge, but she did not so disparage me now. She had no opportunity. Caution had overheard my words, and she whispered harshly, “Bring me the flowers now, please, for I die of the pain, I die!”

Now the midwife could not dare to challenge my right to be there. I rushed to her side and held the flowers where Caution could smell them. She lifted both her hands and seized my wrists so tightly that to this day, I swear I can still feel that clutch. And the nosegay seemed to work its charm, for she seemed to gain strength for her task. She still cried out for Lostler at each pain, but the word ceased to seem a name and more like her rallying cry. I stayed by her side, and let her strangle my hands as she would. My own belly ached and I felt my womb tighten over and over, almost in time with hers. I knew this to be normal and even a good thing when it followed birth, but I could not shake the feeling that I labored alongside her, and that somehow my contractions aided hers.

She gained strength, it is true, but still she labored far longer than I liked. The midwife whispered to her assistants that she might have to cut the child from the Queen-in-Waiting’s womb, or else risk losing both of them. At that, my mistress opened wide her eyes.

“No knife shall touch me!” she proclaimed. “Let my child come out as he went in. Enough blood has been shed over him!”

And all who were near gasped at her words, but none defied her, for all know that in this, the woman has the final say. And so she labored on, though I think the pain would have been less had she allowed the midwife to open her belly for the child’s passing. Night gave way to dawn and then morning. Time and again the king sent messengers to her door, and over and over they were turned back with ‘not yet.’ Finally, he sent a page to sit in the hall outside the door and wait. With the passing of the darkness, I saw my mistress weakening.

And when finally the midwife cried out, “I see the crown! A few more pushes, my queen, and your child will be here!” I saw her face whiten suddenly. Even her lips seemed pale as they pulled back from her teeth and I saw that she did not wait for her body, but pushed with every last bit of strength she had. The baby came then, in a final rush of blood and fluid, head emerging and then his body sliding out almost at once. The midwife caught him and held him up as joyously as if he were a fresh-caught salmon. “A boy!” she cried. “The Farseer line has a new prince! Send the runner to the king, and let the news reach his ears first, that he be the one to proclaim it!”

At once, one of her assistants rushed for the door. The other accepted the prince into a clean white blanket and began to gently rub him clean while the midwife awaited the afterbirth. It came in time and once that last push was done, Caution closed her eyes for a long time. Yet still she gripped my wrists between her hands and I did not move for fear of disturbing whatever small rest she might be finding. The midwife busied herself between the Queen-in-Waiting’s legs, muttering her dislike of something. Cloth after cloth she folded and pressed there, and then pulled Caution’s thighs close together and bound them in a wrapping. And then she turned to her assistant, who had been tugging at her sleeve and whispering at her for some time.

By then my mistress had begun to shake with cold, for she had labored long and now the heat of her work was leaving her. Blankets had been warmed by the hearth, and these were brought to her. When her shaking subsided, she demanded, “Where is my son? You have not yet shown him to me! Give him to me!”

I saw the look that passed between the assistant and the midwife. The midwife folded her lips and gave a sharp nod. The woman approached the Queen-in-Waiting hesitantly, made a deep curtsey and then offered her the bundled child.

Caution took him, smiling wearily, but as she lifted the flap of blanket to look into his little face, she exclaimed, “What is this clumsiness! You have not cleaned him! He is covered still in my blood. Look how it clings to his face!”

The midwife did not speak. Not from her lips ever came those tidings. It was the assistant who said, “May it please my queen, your son is as he is marked, red and white, piebald as a puppy.”

“It pleases me not!” Caution cried wildly. “Wash him! Wash him clean for me!”

And then it was that I took the babe from her hands, and undid his wrappings that we might look on him. But it was as the midwife’s aide had said. He was mottled with red splotches that stood up from his pale flesh. The midwife said in a low voice, “Many things can happen to mark a child. A fright, or a strong emotion of any kind. My queen, look on him, and see if the marks on his body do not match where the blood from that evil horse stained you as he died.”

“No,” Caution said. She looked down at her blotched babe, with half his face white and fair and half his face stained red. And then, “NO!” she shrieked and then her head fell back on her pillows and she fainted.

The midwife and her assistants bustled close to her side, pushing me away from her. I stepped back, cradling her child to my breast, and as if he knew that this was our fate, he turned his face toward me and quested for a nipple.

In the days that followed, I heard many a wild tale. Some said that the babe was so marked because his father was one in spirit with the Spotted Stud. Just as every foal born to the Spotted Stud’s service was born with his spots, so must every child born to the beast’s Wit-partner be likewise blotched. And others said that the baby had been marked in Caution’s womb with the blood spattered on her, and they did not seem to make a difference whether it was Lostler’s blood or the Stud’s.

However it was, this I know for truth: Caution would never let the child be put to suck on her, and so from that moment he was mine to nurse. The Queen-in-Waiting lingered until the change of the moon, speaking little and always looking at me with accusing eyes whenever I came into the room. I knew she blamed me and I would take that blame with me to my grave. The only lie I ever told her was my undoing, and hers, and the Stablemaster’s. Such is the power of a lie given to one you love. And never did I think of telling her the truth, for I knew it would only make her lover’s end more bitter in her memory, and that she would blame herself as well. That burden I kept from her and made it mine alone.

My queen never grew stronger, but dwindled away with that last moon until, in the dark of the moon, she died. My heart shrank as her spirit grew smaller, and when she died, something in me died as well. I cut my hair to mourn her, shearing it off shorter than even the king cut his. My mother rebuked me for this, and I heard gossip hissing and sputtering whenever I passed, but I cared nothing then for any of them or what they thought of me. My queen, my sister, my daughter, my lover all were gone, as if the sun had vanished from the sky, leaving me with nothing but two squalling children.

I was as good a cow as my mother before me, with ample milk, and that was well, for my mother refused to nurse either child. “What future is there in giving suck to a bastard once his protector is dead?” she asked me bluntly. And coming close to me, she added quietly, “But there might be some who would reward a woman who saw that the king’s bastard grandson did not prosper.”

And that was when I took both infants from my mother’s rooms and placed them in my own. And little enough did I have to do with her after that, or she with me. As if all that had come to pass were my own fault, she treated me. And perhaps it was true. And in times to come, when she could neither bear nor nurse, and thought that I would be the one to cushion her life, I did not. Nor do I regret that.

All seemed content to leave the boy to me, so I had his full care as well as my own son’s. The little prince was hearty and strong. His face was mottled and his body as well, but no other flaw did he have to him. His eyes were bright and he nursed with an appetite.

Not so my own child. Born too soon, he was small and where some might have called him placid, I saw him as listless. The prince was pink and plump, but my child was sallow and sunken-eyed. Put to the breast, he dozed off too soon, and had to be pinched awake to nurse. He had not the spirit to cry loudly, but whimpered only. He slept well only when I put him down beside the prince, and so I did, for there was no one who cared enough to say that was not fitting.

In the days after his grandson’s birth, the king was beside himself with grief. He had no thought to the grandson that remained to him, but only to the daughter he had lost. After four days, I named the boy Charger, for he needed a name, and it seemed a good name for a prince. But by then I was too late. The Piebald Prince was how the servants spoke of him. I went to the king himself with the infant, claiming that his mother had chosen that name and it was only proper that he be known by it. So he was entered as Charger Farseer on the rolls of Buckkeep. But since he was a bastard, no one bothered to seal that name to him, and few called him by it. And to the name Piebald he would answer to the end of his days.

BOOK: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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