The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince (Excerpt)

Take a look at the latest coming from Robin Hobb, out on February 28 from Subterranean Press—The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince!:

One of the darkest legends in the Realm of the Elderlings recounts the tale of the so-called Piebald Prince, a Witted pretender to the throne unseated by the actions of brave nobles so that the Farseer line could continue untainted. Now the truth behind the story is revealed through the account of Felicity, a low-born companion of the Princess Caution at Buckkeep.

With Felicity by her side, Caution grows into a headstrong Queen-in-Waiting. But when Caution gives birth to a bastard son who shares the piebald markings of his father s horse, Felicity is the one who raises him. And as the prince comes to power, political intrigue sparks dangerous whispers about the Wit that will change the kingdom forever…

 

Part One

 

The
Willful
Princess

 

At Redbird’s request do I, Felicity, write these words. He was a lettered man and could have undertaken this venture himself had fate allotted him time for it, but it did not. He earnestly put this task upon me, entreating that I be nothing but truthful, as befits the memory of a truth-speaking minstrel, and that I write in my clearest hand, for he wished that these words be plain to any who might read them, next year or a score of years hence. He charged me, too, to write of things only I can know so that in years to come no one can say that what they read here was but a minstrel’s fancy, a fillip added to history to make it a juicier tale.

So I will write these words twice, as he did his song, and bind them together in two packets. One I will place in a hidden place known only to me, and the other I will hide where Redbird said it will likely remain well hidden for years: the scroll library at Buckkeep. And so the truth may be hidden for days or weeks or even decades, but eventually it will come out!

Much of this tale is Redbird’s tale, but I will preface it with a story that not even he knows in full. For it is only when his tale and mine are told side by side that the full significance of them can be understood.

Now Redbird was a minstrel and a truthsinger, one sworn to his king to sing only the true songs, the histories and the records of the realms. Not for him tales of dragons and pecksies and maidens enchanted to sleep for a hundred years. No, his task was to observe, and remember, and tell plain only and exactly what he saw. And so I shall honor his profession and his ways, for truth and truth only shall I trap here in my letters. And if it be a truth that ill pleases folk these days, at least it will remain somewhere for someone to find some day and know the true blood of the Farseer lineage.

My part of the tale begins when I was a little girl. My mother and I were both there on the name-sealing day for Princess Caution Farseer. Queen Capable was radiant in an elegant gown of green and white that set off her dark eyes and hair. King Virile was dressed in well-tailored Buck blue, as was fitting. And the little princess was naked, as custom decreed.

Princess Caution was six weeks old at the time, a well-formed child with a crop of curly dark hair. My mother, her wet-nurse, stood by with a heavily-embroidered coverlet and a soft blanket to receive the child after the ceremony. I stood at her side, better dressed than I’d ever been in my life, holding several clean white flannels in the event of any accidents.

I didn’t listen to the words of the sealing ceremony. At three years old, I was too intent on what I had heard was going to happen to the baby. She would be passed through fire, immersed in water, and buried in earth to seal her name to her and be sure that she would express the virtues of it. So, as the flames in the brazier leaped high and the queen held out her little daughter, I caught my breath in terror and anticipation.

But the queen barely waved the child through the smoke. One flame might have licked at her rosy little heel, but the princess made no murmur of objection. I did. “But she didn’t go through the fire!”

My mother set her hand on my shoulder. “Hush, Felicity,” she said gently, and backed the admonition with a sharp pinch.

I clenched my lips and kept silent. Even at three, I well knew that pinch was a warning of worse things to come if I disobeyed. I saw that the child was barely submersed in the water before the queen snatched her out of it, and that scarcely a trowelful of dry soil was dribbled down her back, never touching her head and brow at all. The little princess was startled but not weeping as the queen handed her over to her royal father. Virile lifted her high, and the nobility of the Six Duchies solemnly bowed before the Farseer heir. As her father lowered her, Caution began to wail, and Virile quickly handed her to her mother. Even more swiftly, the queen passed her to my mother. Wiped clean and wrapped in her blankets, Caution settled again, and my mother returned her to the queen.

I remember little more of that day, save for a comment I heard passed from one duke to another. “She was under the water so briefly the bubbles didn’t even rise from her skin. Her name was not sealed to her.”

The other shook her head. “Mark me well, Bearns. Her parents will not have the heart to raise her as sternly as they ought.”

On the day that Princess Caution Farseer was born, my mother had weaned me. She should have weaned me when I was two, but when she learned that Queen Capable was with child she kept me at the breast to be sure that she would still be in milk when the royal infant was born. My grandmother had been Queen Capable’s wet-nurse, and had won the promise from her mother that when the time came her own daughter would likewise serve her family. It was our great good luck that Lady Capable grew up to wed King Virile. Queen Capable might have forgotten her mother’s promise, but my grandmother and mother certainly did not. The women of our family have long had a tradition of providing for their daughters as best they may. We are not a wealthy family nor of noble lineage, but many a high-born child has been nourished on our rich milk.

I lived at Buckkeep with my mother during the years she suckled Princess Caution. My mother saw to it that from the first day the princess was entrusted to her care, I served her royal highness. At first, my duties were small and simple: to fetch a warm washcloth, to bring a clean napkin, to carry a basket of soiled little garments down to the washerwomen. But as I grew I became the princess’s servant more than my mother’s helper. I held her hands for her first toddling steps, interpreted her babyish lisping for adults too stupid to understand her, and helped her in all ways that an older sister might help a younger one. If she wanted a toy, I fetched it for her. If she finished her bread and milk and wanted more, I gave her mine. For my mother whispered into my ear every night before I slept, “Serve her in all things, for if she makes you hers, then you have made her yours as well. Then, perhaps, as you grow, your life will be easier than mine has been.”

So, from a very early age, I gave way to the princess in all things. I soothed her hurts, quieted her tantrums, and indulged her in every small way that I could. It was me she wanted to cut her meat, and me who tied her slippers. My bed was beside my mother’s, in the room adjacent to the Princess Caution’s nursery. When she had a restless night, an evil dream or a teething fever, I often slept in her big soft bed beside her and she took comfort from my presence. I became invisible, as much a part of the princess as her little green cloak or her lacy white nightdress.

Queen Capable was a doting but not attentive mother. She adored the sweet, calm moments with her baby, but quickly surrendered the child to my mother’s care the moment Caution became soiled, fractious or trying. That suited my mother well. She always did her best to give the queen exactly the experience of her child that she wished to have. I marked well how this benefited my mother and me and in my childish way I mimicked this behavior with the little princess.

Caution was not sickly, but neither was she a hearty infant: even when she could hold her own spoon she was fussy about what she ate. The only food that she never refused was the milk of my mother’s breast. Perhaps that was why she was allowed to nurse long past the age at which most children are weaned, but the more likely reason was that the little princess was never refused anything she wanted. She had only to shed a single tear and all past rules were overturned that she might be the exception. She was over four years old when finally she gave up the teat, and only because my mother caught summer fever and her milk dried up.

Nobler women than we had long been waiting a chance to tend the little princess and win her regard. As soon as it was known that my mother’s milk was gone and Caution weaned, a better-born nanny was brought in to take my mother’s place, and nobler playmates offered to her.

When I returned with my mother to our cottage and the stony fields my father tended, all seemed strange to me. I had grown up at Buckkeep and had only the vaguest memories of my own home. I had seen my father and elder brother at intervals, but did not know either of them in a familiar, comfortable way. They were too busy with the chores of our farm to have much time for me. My mother turned her efforts to getting with child again, for only then would her milk return and another wet-nurse position be offered to her. It was her career and what she expected to do for as long as she could bear a child or give milk to someone else’s.

I was not glad to be there. Our house was small and our living conditions rude and rustic after the comforts of Buckkeep. No rug shielded me from the rough floor; no tapestry blocked the wind that crept through the plank walls of the loft where I slept. Food was simple and my portion smaller than when I had been the princess’s table mate, setting her an example of how to eat well and heartily. Nonetheless, when on the third day after our return a messenger arrived to fetch me back to Buckkeep, I was not pleased to go. I heard with satisfaction that Princess Caution missed me, that she wanted nothing to do with other playmates, that she would not sleep at night but cried and fussed ever since I had left. The princess had demanded that I be returned to her, and the queen herself had sent the messenger to fetch me back. But I had been at my mother’s side for nearly every day since I had been born, and I did not wish to be separated from her.

I was not quite seven and I dared to yowl when my mother announced that I would be glad to go. We left the messenger staring while my mother dragged me up to the loft to pack my clothes, and brush and braid my hair. It was there that she gave me the sharp slap that quietened me. As I sobbed and she folded my clothes and tucked them into a bag, she gave me the most succinct advice surely that ever a mother gave a small daughter. “You are crying when you should be rejoicing. This is your chance, Felicity, and possibly the only one I can ever give you. Stay with me, and you will have to marry young, bear often, and nurse children until your breasts sag flat and your back never ceases aching. But go with the messenger now, and you have the chance to become the princess’s confidante and playmate, despite our low birth. Make much of her at all times, always take her side, intervene and intercede for her. You are a clever girl. Learn everything she is taught. Make first claim on her cast-offs. Be indispensable. Perform every humble task for her that others disdain. Do all these things, my little one, and who knows what you can make for yourself and of yourself? Now, dry your tears. I hope you will remember and heed my words long after you’ve forgotten all else about me. I will come to see you as soon as I can. But until then remember that I loved you enough to put you on this path. Give me a hug and a kiss, for I will surely miss you, my clever one.”

Slapped, counseled and kissed farewell, I followed her down the ladder from the loft. The messenger had brought a pony for me to ride back to Buckkeep. That was my first experience astride a horse, and the beginning of my life-long distrust of the creatures.

 

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince © Robin Hobb 2013

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