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“Why?”

“Well, if we're going to slay the dragon, we have to go to where the dragon is.”

“I don't want to slay the dragon.”

“Well, we won't actually be the ones to slay the dragon. That will be up to the Prince. We'll just be there to help him.”

“I don't want to go-oo.” He dragged the word out mournfully. But to my relief, he stood and stepped out of the tent as if expecting me to take it down immediately.

“I know, Thick. I don't want to go hiking through all that snow and ice, either. But we have to. We're King's Men, and that is what we do. Now, before we take down the tent, we both have to dress more warmly. Shall we do that?”

“We don't have a king.”

“Prince Dutiful will be King someday. And when he is, we'll still be his. So, we are King's Men, even now. But you can say you're a Prince's Man if you like that better.”

“I don't like snow and ice.” Grudgingly, he moved back into the tent and looked about it helplessly.

“I'll get out your things,” I assured him, and proceeded to do so. I've been many things in my days, and serving as valet to the little man did not strike me as so strange as it might have at one time. I laid out his clothes and then stuffed him into them. It was like dressing a large child. He complained of his sleeves dragging up inside the second shirt I put on him, and then his boots were too tight with the extra stockings. By the time I had him dressed, I felt sweaty and smothered myself. I sent him outside, warning him to stay away from the water, as I added a layer to my own clothes and then repacked my and Thick's belongings.

I had to smile when I realized that I was dreading the hike because of the way the cold always made my scars ache. Because of my recent Skill-healing, I had no scars now, I reminded myself; at least not the bone and muscle deep ones that seemed to twist pain deep into me. Those had been replaced with superficial markings on my skin to pretend they were still there. I rolled my shoulders, proving to myself that my flesh no longer pulled against a deep scar in my back. It was a good feeling, and I found myself grinning as I dragged our packed gear out of the tent and then dismantled the tent itself.

I hauled our things to where Longwick was supervising the parceling out of packs. A single small tent was still pitched there. The commander had decided to establish a cache of supplies here on the beach, and was discussing with Chade whether he should leave one or two men to guard it. Chade wanted to leave only one, in order to have a larger force with us. Longwick was courteously but stubbornly holding out for two. “For there is an unsettling feel to this island, sir. And we both know that guardsmen are prone to superstition. The Hetgurd men have been telling tales of a Black Man, and now my own men are muttering that, yes, they might have glimpsed a mysterious shadow lurking at the edge of the camp last night. A man alone would be prey to such thoughts. Two will play dice and talk and keep a better eye on our supplies.”

In the end, Longwick won his point and Chade conceded to leaving two men behind. Churry and Drub would remain with our cache. That settled, Chade turned to me and asked, “Is the Prince's man Thick ready for the journey, Badgerlock?”

“As ready as I could make him, Lord Chade.” But he's not happy about it.

Are any of us? “Excellent. I've a few extra items that we shall want when we reach the dragon. Longwick has divided them for easier carrying.”

“As you will, Lord Chade.” I bowed to him. He hurried off as Longwick issued me a small cask of Chade's explosive powder to add to my pack. I groaned to myself, for it proved heavier than I had expected. We were taking only two of them with us. The other one had been entrusted to Riddle's load. The rest would remain with our cached supplies.

One man would have been ready to leave shortly after Bloodblade's ship had sailed. But when one readies a company of men to travel anywhere, it is a different tale. The sun had reached noon before we were all packed and assembled. I noticed that the Fool struck his elaborate pavilion rapidly, with no help from anyone. Whatever it was made from, it packed down to an amazingly small load. He shouldered it all himself, and I would have been surprised, save that I had always known that he was much stronger than his slight frame would suggest. He moved amongst us but was not a part of either party. The Hetgurd men regarded him with the wariness that many warriors reserve for the God-touched. They did not disdain him, but felt it wiser neither to notice nor be noticed by him. The other guardsmen seemed to feel he was no business of theirs, and certainly did not want to be recruited to help carry his possessions or otherwise serve him. Cockle watched him curiously from afar, scenting a story but not strongly enough to be drawn in yet. Only Swift seemed uninhibitedly fascinated by the Fool. He dropped his own pack to the ground and perched on it while he chattered away at him. The Fool has ever had a clever way of talking, and Swift's ready laughter seemed to feed his wit. Web watched the two interact with something like approval on his face. It was only then that it dawned on me that this was the first time Swift had shown an easy friendliness toward anyone. I wondered how the Fool had melted his reserve, even as I noticed Civil regarding them with distaste. When Civil glanced up to find my eyes on him, he looked away, but I could sense his uneasiness bubbling just under the surface. I wondered if I could find a way to have a quiet word with him and calm his fears. Plainly he recalled his first impression of Lord Golden when we had guested at his home. It was easy to divine his worries now: he thought that the Fool was easing the lad toward seduction. I wanted to intervene before Civil muttered a word of that suspicion to anyone, for I suspected the Outislanders would be far less than tolerant of such behavior, God-touched or not.

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