Read The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince Online
Authors: Robin Hobb
Tags: #Fiction, #Epic, #Robin Hobb, #Fantasy, #high fantasy, #Farseer
To my natural son, I gave the name Redbird, for his hair was russet as a robin’s breast feathers. He was smaller than Prince Charger, and not a healthy child at first. His vision was weak, so he developed a peering expression, and this I think was the result of him being forced so soon into the outer world. I raised him beside the prince, just as I had been raised beside his mother, but to my boy I did not give the ill counsels my mother had bestowed on me.
I requested a room on a higher floor than I had previously occupied, and the house steward was quick enough to find one for us. No one tried to take the bastard prince from me and if anyone even knew I had borne a child as well, no one cared. So it was that I lived on the floor above the royal family’s quarters, but on a level below that occupied by the common servants. My neighbors were those well born, but not royal, and visiting nobility. I lived quietly among them. The court was happy to forget us.
I saw to the young prince’s needs as I once had to his mother’s, visiting the royal seamstresses when he needed new garments, and making sure that they were well made enough that they would serve my smaller son as well when he grew into Charger’s cast offs. As the months passed my son grew healthier, though he never matched his royal companion in size or appetite, and once he passed his sickly beginning, was an easy child, content to give way to the prince in all things. I mourned my lost princess and cherished her son for he was all I had left of her; but as the months passed, the razor of my pain dulled.
At Buckkeep life and politics must continue, no matter whose wife or daughter dies. In less than a year King Virile had been bereaved of both wife and daughter. Many said that he would follow them swiftly to the grave, for grief and shame as heavy as that might kill any man. They began to look to his younger brother, wondering if Virile would not name him as King-in-Waiting now. But in truth, King Virile bore up under his sorrows. I do not mean that I was privy to the king’s private thoughts or doings, but only that I saw what everyone did. He still came to sit in judgment on the appointed days. The flesh of his face sagged with grief and his eyes were never clear, but he was clean and walked as tall and sat as straight as ever he had.
He became a man both grave and thoughtful, seldom smiling and never laughing, but a better king all the same than he had been in the years before his grief. For the next two decades, he was to rule wisely and well. At first, his dukes and duchesses spoke amongst themselves, saying: “Perhaps he will take another wife and get another heir for the throne, for he is not too old a man to father another child, or even five.” But the years came and went, and he showed no sign of this. Then they began to say, “Then surely he will name his brother’s son, Canny Farseer, as heir to the Farseer throne.” Many a noble daughter was presented to Canny Farseer as a suitable wife, with many a parent thinking that the daughter they placed before him now might sit upon the Farseer throne later.
Of the Piebald Prince little was noised about outside the castle at Buckkeep. Yet the truth of it must be told, even if minstrels have lied and said he was a twisted little half-man, wicked in his lies and cruel to his nurses. The truth makes a shorter tale: Charger was both as handsome and as ugly a child as has ever walked the earth. He was well made in form and in manner, save for the blotching of his flesh, and this discoloring was over his whole body, not just his face. For all the discoloration, his features were Farseer, resembling both his mother and his grandfather far more than his father. As for his temperament, he was as stubborn as his mother in having his own way, and near as silent as his father. For though it was seldom whispered, no one now doubted that Lostler the Stablemaster had sired the boy.
Now this was the manner of his marking: the left side of his face was colored as anyone might expect it to be. The right was blotched the color of an over-ripe berry, from brow to chin, but not around his mouth. His hair was black, and dark brown his eyes. At the nape of his neck another blotch began, and trickled like spilled wine over his left shoulder. On his left arm, he was marred with three blots, and one was shaped like a bird with outstretched wings. On the back of his right leg the color went from the back of his thigh to just below his knee. Now some will say that the splotches of colors were just the same as the Spotted Stud wore, as like to the places on the horse as a man’s body can be. But by the time this was noised about, the horse was long dead, and man’s memory is a chancy thing when the evidence is not before his eyes. So as to the truth of that, I will not vouch. I think it more likely that the blood of the Stableman and the stallion had soaked the princess and marked the babe in her womb. For such things do happen, as is well known.
I had the raising of him for his infancy. And when the day came that Charger and Redbird could sit and listen, I was the one who took him and my own boy beside him, down to the hearth in the Great Hall where the children took their lessons from Scribe Willowby. Even then, the law was that no child in Buckkeep could be denied learning, so no one thought to turn away either bastard, royal or red. And Willowby, being a just man, soon perceived that the Piebald Prince had a quick mind. The scribe himself appealed to the king for a proper tutor for the boy. I feared then that he would be taken from me, and my son and I turned out to find a new livelihood. But instead when the boy was moved down the stairs to a set of rooms on the same floor as the king, Redbird and I joined him there, likely because they were empty and no one thought to forbid us from doing so.
Now from the beginning, Charger had from his father the tongue of the beasts. This was a magic that in those days some folk owned to having with no shame, for at that time the degradations it might lead to were not well known. So folk would openly claim the Wit, and some made their living from having it, as huntmasters and beast-healers and swineherds and the like, and the Piebald Prince had the Wit in plenty. Humans might shun him for the patches that marred his face and body, but not beasts. They came to him as bees to nectar. Birds came through the windows to perch on the edge of his cradle. This is a truth I will swear to, for I saw it myself. There was no lapdog that would not leave its master’s side to run at the boy’s heels. Cats trailed after him. As he grew, there was not a horse in the stable he could not ride. All of this, he accepted as his due.
He was as well taught as a prince should be, for as he grew the king himself saw to that, personally choosing his tutors, seeing that he learned his languages from those who had spoken them from birth and that he learned his history from a minstrel trusted to teach the boy the truth. Charger remained an apt and eager student. My Redbird was not so eager for his studies, and yet I insisted, switch in hand, that he be as attentive to the prince’s lessons as if the tutor were his own. And so he learned.
Charger remained without noble friends of his own age or elders sympathetic to him. Instead, he found his friends as my Redbird did, amongst the lowly folk of the keep, the dog-boys and the kitchen-help and the gardeners and such. Redbird was ever at his heels, faithful as a hound, and often the two would fall asleep by the hearth, leaning on one another. Folk shook their heads to see any kind of a prince, even a piebald bastard one, reduced to such playmates.
In due time, Charger was tested for the Skill, and found to have little of the rightful Farseer magic. It was only with the greatest effort that the Skillmaster could reach his mind with his thoughts, and Charger was completely unable to make his own thoughts known to any of the King’s Coterie. Now some will say that this alone was a strong sign of his common birth, and others that the lowly magic of animals destroyed any Farseer magic in him. But no one can know one way or another, and therefore no proper minstrel would vouch for the truth of it. I would say that his mother had little ability for that magic either, and it is well known that it is not bestowed every generation, nor that every child of royal blood inherits the same strength of it.
King Virile ruled well and the Piebald Prince grew as boys will, sprouting up like bean plants, so that it seemed one but turned around and he stood one day as tall as his grandfather. By then my own Redbird, slight as he was, had been discovered to have a sweet voice and strong lungs. He had his father’s looks, his copper hair and hazel eyes, and from his father too, he took his fine voice. More than once I overheard folk marvel that a rangy cow like me should have dropped such a fine calf. He would remain small of stature and slender as a boy for all his life, but he was sunny natured, and clever at his letters and numbers. He was as cautious as the prince was daring, well aware he could not climb, wrestle or run as well as the other lads of his age; but for all that, he was utterly devoted to the prince, and for his part, Charger watched out for him as if he were a younger brother, with both fondness and tolerance for his lesser strength. I dared to dream large dreams for my son, but kept them to myself, resolved that he should be the one to steer his life.
When the minstrels of the keep offered to vouch for Redbird to enter their guild, he beseeched me to allow it. It cut like a knife but I smiled and I let him go. I told myself that it was right to let him have his own life. And he did not go far, for in those days his own father, Copper Songsmith, had returned to the keep. Although he never claimed Redbird as his son, he was pleased to take him as an apprentice. So I saw my son often enough, even if he did leave Buckkeep Castle to live in the Guild Hall with the other apprentices. Redbird chose to take the path of one who keeps the records and witnesses to the truth of agreements. He had many lineages to learn, and all of the old histories to memorize, but these things he seemed to relish. I sometimes thought of the days when only a switch would make him sit down and take heed, and wondered where that distractible child had gone.
So that left me tending a prince who needed less and less of my attention each day. I wondered what would become of me when he left my care, for I had not followed my mother in her career as a wet-nurse. Redbird remained my sole child, and I had small chance of bearing another who might bring me to milk again. My association with Caution and then her bastard had left its marks on me in many ways. My only unguarded friendships were those I had formed with the keep youngsters, mostly common, who had been the young playmates of the prince and my son. Those not restrained by their parents had been happy to frequent our chambers for stories and games. And as they grew, even if their parents did disapprove, I kept their regard. But a young man does not need a nanny forever.
When the time came for the prince to be given apartments of his own, I did not beg his mercy. And yet he granted it to me. He himself went to the king and asked that for my long service to him, I be given a chamber on the servants’ floors and a small allowance for my needs. The king granted it. I wondered if he remembered my long service to his daughter as well, and if that had been in my favor or not. But I was in no position to question it and was grateful for what I got. And I was able to earn both coins and goodwill outside of that allowance by taking in the care of small children for busy servants who did not wish to resign their positions to raise their own children. And so I remained at Buckkeep, and at least three times a week Prince Charger would call on me, often with my son at his side, for despite the differences in their stations the two remained close friends.
The prince was a lad of thirteen when King Virile began to summon him to duties as a page. He had gained his grandfather’s attention honestly, with schooling well accomplished and a respectful attitude. Of his own volition, the boy had begun to attend the hall and study his grandfather when the king passed his judgments. At King Virile’s invitation Charger began to be seated at his left hand during banquets and other noble gatherings. The Piebald Prince showed himself as a youth well taught, in speech, song and dance. Put forward in the games and challenges at Spring Fest, he acquitted himself well if not remarkably. He remained a lad of few words and sober dress, but he began to attract sons of lesser nobles who made little of his birth and marred face. Yet amongst the well-born sons of the dukes and the higher nobles few deigned to notice him. These, for the most part, had already given their friendship and loyalties to Canny Farseer, son of Strategy Farseer, Duke of Buck. These fair and proud young nobles called themselves amongst themselves the Canny Court. Thus a mockery was born: they called the Piebald Prince and his friends the Motley Court, as much for the unevenness of birthright amongst them as the unevenness of Charger’s complexion. And among those followers was my own Redbird, loyal as ever and speaking only truth to his prince.
Now Canny Farseer at that time was a well-grown man of high spirits, a man of thirty-four years but never wed. Some say he was wild of demeanor, quick-tongued and rash in both his wagering and his rising to the wagers of his friends. All of these things are true, as was often witnessed by Redbird and his master Copper Songsmith on the many evenings when he entertained the Canny Court. Canny was not a man to turn down a challenge, and the risks he took to win were often steep ones, but it only made all, both noble youths and maidens, love and admire him all the more. The Six Dukes began to whisper amongst themselves that he was a Farseer bred and born, and many years past the age where King Virile could have named him as King-in-Waiting, and if he had done so few would have opposed it. Nor did Duke Strategy Farseer discourage such talk, and whenever such words came to young Canny’s ears he would shrug his shoulders and say it was the nature of King Virile to take his time. But as the years passed he sometimes would add, twisting his own words jestingly, that soon enough it would be his own time to take. Yet Canny Farseer smiled all the while he said such things, and no one ever took it as the man reaching for a throne not rightfully his. For it was perceived that no one else had a better claim.
At the same time those who favored the Piebald Prince began to grow in both power and prestige. For often enough the prince applied to his grandfather, King Virile, asking for this friend a grant of land, and for that friend a better share of the taxes. The members of the Motley Court began to visit Buckkeep Castle more frequently, and to stay and hunt and ride with the king alongside their prince, and have his ear at meat and to grow in influence with him. Nor did Charger limit his friends to those of the lesser nobility. He knew all the folk of the keep by name, and their children’s names. A few of the better born began to perceive the goodness in him, and more than once I heard it said that despite the marring of his face the features of a Farseer spoke loud in his looks.