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“My queen, I offer my humblest apologies.”

“You have been long without rest.” She muffled a small yawn of her own and said, “I sent for breakfast, and let my maid know I am famished. She will wish to tidy this room before she sets it out for me here. Conceal yourself until you hear me knock.”

And so I spent some short time sitting on the steps in the darkness behind the concealed panel. I closed my eyes, but did not sleep. Yet it was not the burdens of the Six Duchies throne that weighted my thoughts. I was but a tool to be used in that sorting. I would eat with the Queen, visit the steams and shave, sleep for a short time, and then find a way to slip out of the castle and go back to the Witness Stones. I would raid the storeroom first, I decided, and take with me cheese and fruit and wine for the Fool and the Black Man. Perhaps they would enjoy some fresh bread. I smiled to myself, thinking how they would welcome the change in food. Perhaps the Fool would be better and able to travel. If he was, I could bring them both to Buckkeep, where I would know the Fool was safe. And finally I would be free, to go to Molly, and heal the rift of years. I heard the Queen's tap on the wall.

She had taken advantage of the time to smooth her hair and don a fresh gown. A meal, ample for several people, was set out on the low table. Tea steamed from a flowered pot, and I smelled fresh bread and butter melting on hot porridge beside a pot of thick yellow cream.

“Come and eat,” she welcomed me. “And if you have a word left in you, tell me of what you have been through, and how it is that you and Thick have discovered such a swift way to travel.”

I realized then the depth of the Queen's faith in me. So much had not been relayed through Nettle for the sake of keeping Chade's secrets. Only by subtle hints had she known to expect me, and yet she had believed we would arrive. And so, as we ate, I found myself reporting to her yet again. She had always been a good listener, and over the years had been my confidante more than once. Perhaps that was why I found myself telling her far more of the truth than I had confided to anyone else. I told her of my search through the city for the Fool's body, and tears ran down her cheek unchecked when I told her where and how I had found him. Her pale eyes brimmed with wonder as I told her how we had returned to the abandoned plaza. To her alone did I confide my venture into death. To her alone did I give a full accounting of our visit to the dragons themselves and the restoration of the Rooster Crown.

Only once did she interrupt. I had told her of brushing the dust and leaves off Verity-as-Dragon. She instantly reached across the table to seize my hand in a cool, hard grip.

“With these pillars, if you held my hand, you could take me to him? Even just once? I know, I know, all that would not be there for me. Yet, even to touch the stone that holds him . . . Oh, Fitz, you have no idea what that would mean to me!”

“To take an unSkilled person through a pillar . . . I do not know the full toll it might take on your mind. It could be arduous and dangerous, my queen.” I was reluctant, and yet even more reluctant to disappoint her.

“And Dutiful,” she said, as if she had not heard my warning at all. “Dutiful should stand, at least once, by the dragon of his father. It would make real his father's sacrifice to him, and he might perceive his own in a kindlier light then.”

“Dutiful's sacrifice?”

“Did not you hear what he could not say? That as a man, he could have stayed there with Elliania, and been her husband and welcomed by her family. As a prince, he cannot. It is not a small sacrifice, FitzChivalry. Elliania will follow him here, that is true. But ever, it will be a little wall between them. You yourself have known how sharp that can be, to disappoint the woman you love out of the duty you must yield to your people.”

I spoke without considering the wisdom of it. “I will be going back for her, now. The time for that sacrifice is at an end. Burrich is gone and no longer stands between us. I will take Molly again for my own.”

A silence followed my words, and I realized I had shocked her. Then she said, gently, “I am glad that, at last, you have found that resolve. I speak now as a woman and your friend. Do not go to Molly too soon. Let her son come home to her first. Let her family heal around their terrible wound. Then, approach her, but as yourself, not as a man coming to take Burrich's place.”

I knew her words were wise as soon as I heard them. But my heart howled to rush to Molly as soon as I could, to begin, as soon as possible, to make up the years we had lost. I wanted to comfort her in her grief. I bowed my head, realizing the selfishness of that impulse. Hard as it would be for me to stand to one side and wait, it was what I should do, for the sake of Burrich's sons.

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