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After a time I became aware that I was speaking aloud to him. “Where? Where would you want me to do this thing? I could place you on her bed and burn you in the midst of all her heaped wealth . . . would you want that? Or would you think that contact with anything of hers would soil you? Where would I want to be burned? Under the night sky, I think, sending my own sparks up to the stars. Would you like that, Fool? Or would you prefer to be within the Elderling tent, with your own things around you, closed in with the privacy you always cherished? Why didn't we ever talk about these things? It seems something a man should know about his best friend. But in the end, does it matter at all? Gone is gone, ash is ash . . . but I think I would prefer to loose your smoke to the night wind. Would you laugh at me for that? Gods. Would that you could laugh at me for anything again.”

“How touching.”

The lilt of mockery, the knife's edge of sarcasm, and the voice so like his made my heart stop and then lurch on. I slammed my Skill-walls tight, but felt no assault against them. I turned, teeth bared, to confront her. She stood in the door of her bedchamber. She was mantled in ermine, white fur with tiny black tails interrupting it in a scattered pattern. It hung from her shoulders to the floor, draping her entire body. Despite the richness of her garb, she looked haggard. The perfect sculpting of her face had sunken to her bones and her pale hair, ungroomed, lagged and wisped like dry straw around her face. Her colorless eyes seemed almost dull, the eyes of a beached fish.

I stood before her, clutching the Fool's corpse to my breast. I knew he was dead and she could no longer hurt him, and yet I backed away from her, as if I still needed to protect him from her. As if I had ever been able to protect him from her!

She lifted her chin, baring the white column of her throat. “Drop that,” she suggested, “and come and kill me.”

Was it because she had suggested it that my first thought now seemed like such a bad idea? “No,” I replied, and suddenly I wanted only to be left completely alone. This was an intimate death I held. She, of all people, should not witness or take satisfaction in my grief. “Go away,” I said, and did not know the low growl of my own voice.

She laughed, icicles shattering on stone. “Go away? Is that all? Go away? Such a keen vengeance for FitzChivalry Farseer to take upon me! Ah, that shall go down in tales and songs! ‘And then he stood, holding his beloved and said to their enemy, ‘Go away!' ” She laughed, but there was no music in it. It was like rocks rattling down a hillside, and when I made no response to it, her laughter trailed away into silence. She stared at me, and for a moment she looked confused. She had truly believed that she could make me drop him and attack her. She tipped her head, staring at me, and after a moment, spoke again. Her voice was lower now.

“Wait. I see. You have not yet unwrapped my little gift to you. You have not yet seen all that I did to him. Wait until you see his hands, and those clever, graceful fingers of his! Oh, and his tongue and teeth, which spoke so wittily for your amusement! I did that for you, FitzChivalry, that you might fully regret your disdainful rejection of me.” She paused very briefly and then said, as if reminding me, “Now, Fitz. This is when you promise to kill me if I follow you.”

I had been about to utter those words. I bit down on them. She had made them empty and childish. Perhaps those words were always empty and childish. I shifted my burden in my arms and then turned and walked away from her. My Skill-walls were up and tight, but if she made any assault against them, it was too subtle for me to feel. My back felt exposed and I'll admit that I wanted to run. I asked myself why I did not kill her. The answer seemed too simple to be true. I did not want to put his body down on her floor while I did it. Even more, I did not want to do anything that she expected me to do.

“He called out for you!” She sang the words after me. “He thought he was close to dying, I imagine. Of course, he was not. I am more adept than that! But he thought the pain would kill him, and he cried out for you. ‘Beloved! Beloved!' ” Her mockery of his agonized voice was perfect. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as if he had spoken to me from beyond the grave. Despite my resolve, my steps slowed. I held his body closer and bowed my head more tightly over his. I hated that her words could bring tears to my eyes. I should kill her. Why didn't I kill her?

“He did mean you, did he not? Well, of course he did, though you may not know it. I doubt you know the custom of the people he came from; how they exchange names to denote the lifelong bonds they form? Did you ever call him by your name, to show him that he was as dear to you as your own life? Did you? Or were you too much of a coward to let him know?”

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