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“No. She just doesn't want to talk to you.” He measured me as he said this, perhaps to see if this idea bothered me more than the thought that he could block me from her. He was right. It did. I sent a tiny, private plea to Dutiful. Find out for me. Is she safe?

Thick's eyes flickered from me to Dutiful and back again. The Prince kept silent. He knew as well as I did that we had been caught Skilling. Anything he said to Thick right now would be suspect. And the little man had not been pleased with Dutiful to begin with. I picked at that thought. “So. You're not going with us when we leave, Thick?”

“No. No more ships.”

It was cruel. I did it anyway. “Then how are you going to get home? Going on a ship is the only way to get home.”

He looked doubtful. “You aren't going home. You're going to that dragon island.”

“To start with, yes. But after that, we're going home.”

“And you'll come back here and get Thick first.”

“Maybe,” Dutiful conceded.

“Maybe, if we are still alive,” Chade embroidered. “We had been counting on your help. If you stay here and we go on without you . . .” The old man shrugged. “The dragon may kill all of us.”

“Serve you right,” Thick replied darkly. But I thought we had put a crack in his resolve. He seemed to be thinking as he sat scowling at his pudgy hands clasped at the table's edge.

Chade spoke slowly and consideringly. “If Nettle is telling Thick stories to keep him company, then I don't think she is in any great danger, Fitz.”

If he had hoped to provoke a comment from Thick, he failed. The little man gave a disgusted hmph and settled back in his chair, arms crossed firmly on his chest.

“Let it go,” I suggested softly to all of them. When I tried to think why Nettle might be so angry with me as to break off all contact, there were far too many reasons. Yet, I told myself sternly, to know she was alive and angry with me was preferable to thinking that a dragon might have decimated her and her family. I longed for certainty about the situation, and knew I would not get it. In my heart, I wished speed to the messenger bird we had sent. If Nettle must be angry, let her at least be angry in a safe place.

Little else was said that evening. Three of us went over our packing, and Chade spent time muttering worriedly over a cargo manifest. Thick made a great show of not packing. At one point, Dutiful began to gather up Thick's clothes and stuff them into a bag, but when Thick dumped it out on the floor again, they both left them there. They were still there when we all went to bed.

I did not sleep well. Now that I knew Nettle was purposely ignoring me, I could find and feel the shape of her barrier. More annoying was knowing that Thick was observing me as I groped, and taking pleasure in my inability to break through it. If he had not, perhaps I would have made a more serious effort to get into Nettle's dreams. Instead, I gave it up and tried to slide into true sleep. Instead, I had a restless night of brief dreams of all the people I'd hurt or failed, from Burrich to Patience, with the most vivid ones being of the Fool's accusing stare.

We arose before the sun the next morning. We broke our fast in near silence, with Thick in a simmering sulk, waiting for us to entreat or order him to move. By tacit consent, none of us did. What brief words we shared were spoken past him. We loaded up our individual bags. Riddle arrived to help us carry our gear. Chade let the guardsman take his pack but Prince Dutiful insisted on carrying his own. And we left.

Riddle walked a step behind Chade, carrying his pack. Longwick and the other four guardsmen followed us. I did not know any of them well. Hest, a youngster, I liked well enough. Churry and Drub were close friends and seasoned warriors. All I knew of Deft was that he lived up to his name when the dice were in his hands. The rest of the guard would be left behind with our nobles, and our diminished party was to form up on the docks. As we walked through the cobbled streets, I asked, “And if Thick doesn't come after us, what then?”

“Leave him,” Dutiful replied grimly.

“You know we can't,” I pointed out, and he grunted in reply.

“I could go back and drag him along,” Riddle offered doubtfully. I winced to think of that, and Chade shook his head mutely.

It might come to that, I observed privately to them. I can't do it, because his Skill can knock me to my knees. But someone unSkilled and insensitive to Thick's power might be able to force him physically. Look at the times when other servants mistreated him, taking his coins. Of course, we'd have to deal with his anger about that in the days to come, but at least he would be with us.

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