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The door was opened so swiftly that I had to believe that he had been waiting for us. Even then, the Fool stood frozen, staring at the smiling Black Man who confronted us. “He's cold, and very weary,” I excused him, and then thrust him into the room in front of me. Once inside I pushed the door firmly shut behind us and then turned back gratefully to the cozy room. I blinked, letting my eyes adjust to the dimness after the brightness of full daylight. I saw the small hearth fire first, and then I found the Black Man staring at the Fool in mutual incredulity.

“He was dead,” the Black Man told me firmly. “He died.” His eyes were very wide.

“Yes. He was.” I confirmed it for him. “But I am the Catalyst. I change things.”

And then Thick sprang up from the hearth and grasped me in a short-limbed hug. He danced like a little bear as he shouted, “You're back! You're back! I thought you would never come back. Chade said, ‘The ship is coming,' and I said, ‘But he's not here and I won't get on a ship.' Then he said, ‘It's coming anyway.' And it did, but no one was there and it went back, because I said, ‘No, I am not walking back all alone, all alone, and I don't want to get on a ship anyway!' ” He halted his dance and then told me with a satisfied grin, “Either you are dead or Chade is so mad at you that you'll wish you were. That was what he said. Dutiful. Oh, and the dragon head, I forgot to tell the dragon head part. Nettle did it! She sent the dragon head to the mothershouse and it was a big surprise for everyone. Except me. She told me she could do it, could talk to Tintaglia and make her sorry if she didn't. So she did. And everything is good again now.”

The last he said so confidently that it was difficult to look down into the cheerful round-eyed face and say, “I don't think I understood half of what you just told me. And I think I have been away longer than I thought. But I'm glad to be back.” I extricated myself from his hug. A strange silence had fallen in the other half of the room. The Black Man and the Fool regarded one another, not with animosity, but disbelief. Looking at the two of them together, I could see a kinship, but it was one of ancient lineage rather than a close family resemblance. The Black Man was the first to speak.

“Welcome,” he said faintly.

“I never saw you,” the Fool said wonderingly. “In all the futures I glimpsed, in all that might be, I never saw you.” He abruptly began to tremble and I knew he was at the end of his strength. The Black Man seemed to sense this also, for he pushed a cushion closer to the fire and motioned hastily that the Fool should be seated. The Fool more collapsed than sat down. I took my cloak from around him, telling him, “The warmth will reach you faster if you let it in.”

“I don't think I'm that cold,” he said faintly. “I'm just . . . I'm outside of my time, Fitz. I'm a fish in the air or a bird beneath the sea. I'm past my life and I grope forward through each day, wondering what I am meant to do with myself. It's hard. It's very hard for me.” His voice dwindled as he said the words. He looked up at the Black Man as if begging for help. His head wavered on his neck.

I did not know what to say to him. Did he resent that I had sought more life for him? It hurt to think so, but I held my tongue. I watched the Black Man grope for words. “This, I can teach . . .” The Black Man's voice slowly faded away. A smile slow as sunrise came to his face. He cocked his head at the Fool and said something in another tongue.

The Fool opened to him as a flower turns to light. A tremulous smile lit his face and he replied hesitantly in the same language. The Black Man whooped aloud in delight to hear him. He gestured at himself and said something rapidly, and then, as if remembering his manners, took up the kettle and a cup and with a graceful flourish, poured tea for the Fool and set it before him. The Fool thanked him extravagantly. Their language seemed to take many words to say simple things. Not one syllable of it resembled any tongue I'd ever heard before. The Fool's voice grew fainter. He took a breath and then finished what he was saying.

I felt an adolescent pang of exclusion. Almost as if the Fool sensed it, he turned slowly to me. He pushed his hair back from his face with fingers that shook. “I have not heard the language of my childhood since, well, since I left home. It is like balm to hear it again.”

Chade and Dutiful must have known through Thick that I had returned, for I felt then such a battering against my Skill-walls as might have been a siege. I decided reluctantly that it was time to let them in. I took the cup of tea the Black Man had just poured for me and sat down by his fire and then, seeing the Fool well occupied with our host, I surrendered and lowered my Skill-walls.

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