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The Rarest Thing In The World

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The houses were strange in the Fool’s homeland, all curling eaves and red lacquer.

I trudged along a dirt road in a town on a continent that as a boy I hadn’t known existed, adjusting a rough pack on my shoulder, and shivered a bit as I looked around myself. Spring had come, but not summer by any stretch of the imagination. I had often been surprised on this journey, and one of the things I had not been expecting was that it would be cold. Nothing compared to the icy winters at Buckkeep, true, but there was a definite bite to the air. The heat and humidity in Jamaillia had been so great that I had wondered that anything could survive any farther south, but after Jamaillia City the climate had changed again.

I was close. I was sure of it. In a city nearby I had seen, around the neck of a woman selling carpets in the bazaar, a necklace of wooden beads that screamed of the hand of my Fool. I cannot say how I knew – the beads were quite ordinary, only simple unadorned spheres. All the same, I recognized them immediately. She must have thought me crazed when I came up to her and, rather than expressing interest in her wares, demanded breathlessly the origin of her ornament. But she gave me directions to this small, out of the way place, nestled among rolling hills rich in deciduous trees, where, she said, lived a carver of wood and sometime prophet.

I asked directions of a young man in a rough homespun shirt with a yoke over his shoulders, laden with pails of water. “Ye want your fortune, eh?” he asked knowingly. “Well, good luck to ye. The prophet, he don’t see many people. Keeps to ’imself, like.” I struggled a little to understand his accent – although I had always been good with languages, the smooth syllables and subtle intonations of this one confused my ear and twisted around my tongue. I’d first learned the dialect of the city dwellers on the northwestern coast, and the less polished speech of the inland country folk still frustrated me. But I could get along well enough.

“He’ll see me,” I told the man, my voice sure although my thoughts were anything but that. Although something deep in my gut told me that my search was nearly at an end, the years since I’d left the Six Duchies had been too full of disappointments for confidence, even now. Perhaps the prophet of this out of the way place was simply a charlatan, a curiosity, and not the Fool at all.

“Ya, ya.” The worker managed to shrug despite his burdened shoulders, and the brittle afternoon sunlight glanced blindingly off the surface of the water he carried. I blinked away the afterimage. “Only, ye might have better luck if’n you wanted a trinket or some such. But ye don’t see the prophet for that. Master Eylas, he’s the one what sells the goods. Go down t’ the market tomorrow mornin’, if that’s what yer after. No?” He grunted with supreme unconcern. “The house is around that corner,” he said, pointing. “Door with carvings all over it.”

And with that he strode off, evidently forgetting all about me.

I followed the path he’d indicated, all the while wondering who the “Master Eylas” he had mentioned could possibly be. Of course the Fool would have made friends – he always did. There was something about him that drew people, some indefinable luminosity.

When I came to the door in question, I was nearly undone. My fingers rested, tremblingly, on the central design of a kneeling man with his hair in a warrior’s tail and his arm around a shaggy, grinning wolf. The depiction was perfect. The Fool had a good memory for detail.

I took a deep breath, and brought myself back under control. Then I knocked at the door.

It was opened by a diminutive old brown skinned man with coal black eyes in a cheerful, seamed face. I blinked in surprise – he wasn’t the one I was expecting. Perhaps he was the mysterious Master Eylas. My stomach swooped with nervousness – it’s not him, he’s not here – but I put my hands together and bowed politely, as was the custom. He bowed back, and spoke to me in the liquid language of that country, “What do you seek in this humble house?”

“I have heard tell of man, an artist. A prophet.” I took a quick breath, squared my shoulders, and asked, “Might I find such a one here?”

The doorkeeper looked at me warily, his black eyes unreadable. The silence before he answered seemed heavy, stretched taut, as though I balanced on a tightrope like the one I had seen at a fair on the plains of Mabanyeë. I felt that his next words would send me tumbling off into space, perhaps to years more of searching, and perhaps – not.

“Master Ulai matches that description,” he said, finally.

My excitement must have shown on my face, because he held up a hand sharply. “You wish to see Master Ulai,” he stated. Then he asked, not unkindly, “Why should he wish to see you?”

A score of answers ran through my mind, from the unnecessarily dramatic to the blandly mundane. I struggled to choose one. The doorkeeper waited out my hesitation patiently. Finally I said simply, “Because he is my friend, and I hope that I am still his.”

The man’s eyes widened slightly at this, though he gave no other sign of surprise. I suppose he had expected something like, “I have traveled far to seek the guidance of the White Prophet.” Well, I had traveled far, certainly, but never for the White Prophet. I had done it for the Fool.

He tilted his head to one side, looking thoughtful. “You are young,” he stated flatly.

Ah. It had been nearly fifty years since I had last seen the Fool, and yet I knew I still had the look of a man of perhaps forty-five. It had taken me a laughably long time to notice how slowly I was aging, not being much given to self-reflection. It was only after Molly died that I put the pieces together and realized I would not be following her soon. I began my journey here shortly afterwards.

I had no way of knowing how long this man had known the Fool, or how much he knew about him, but it was evident that he knew the Fool's history stretched back a long ways. “I am older than I look.”

The man’s lined face did not lose its skeptical aspect. Strange to think that he might actually be younger than I. But there was no time for such speculation, for he was, politely but firmly, closing the door in my face.

“Please!” I blurted, louder than I had intended, but no matter, because the doorkeeper had paused in the act of shutting the door, surprised.

I stumbled over the language in my haste, the fluid sounds coming haltingly to my tongue. “Please,” I repeated in a more reasonable tone, holding his black eyes with mine. I did not bother to keep the desperation out of my voice. I had come too far for pride. “I know it sounds strange, but I truly believe that he will be glad to see me. Please let me in. If he does not recognize me, then I am wrong and I will go. Please.”

I barely breathed as I waited for his response. As much as I tried to retain my dignity, it became impossible to rein in my emotions when I thought that within a few minutes I might see the Fool after more than fifty years apart. There were so many things left unsaid between us, but in truth I little thought of them. I just wanted to see him again.

After what seemed an age, the doorkeeper relaxed his posture and shook his head. A smile deepened the wrinkles in his face as he opened the door wider and stood aside for me. “Well, I admit it isn’t the usual request. Come in, then.”

I let out my breath, trying not to be too obvious about it, and followed him inside. He led me down a short hallway and knocked politely on the door at the end of it.

My heart nearly stopped as I heard an achingly familiar voice say quietly, “Come in, Eylas.” My new acquaintance pushed the door open silently.

Sunlight poured into the room from the north facing windows that dominated the far wall, collecting in vibrant pools on the fine hardwood floor. There was a large worktable pushed up under the windows, laden with a few neat stacks of books, some carving tools, and a half finished wooden marionette.

The Fool stood with his back to us, looking out at a sweeping view of trees resplendent with the new green of spring. His rich brown hair was confined to a single tail at the back of his neck. The soft, dense waves of it looked well against his simple cream colored garment, a tailored robe all of the one color, with a high collar. It hugged his torso but fell into generous folds of fabric at his feet, and the sleeves belled out over his slim dark hands where they rested on the worktable.

His right hand was encased in a glove.

He was breathtaking, and he had not even turned to face me.

Eylas cleared his throat gently. “You have a visitor,” he ventured when the Fool made no move to speak. “He seemed most determined to see you.”

The Fool still did not turn, nor indeed make any sign that he had hear at all except to give a long, soft, unutterably exhausted sigh. Suddenly he seemed old, very old, despite the fact that his slim shoulders remained perfectly straight and unbowed. Eylas turned to me with sympathy in his eyes but no real regret. “Perhaps you should -” he started to say.

But I had come much too far to be put off because the Fool was feeling melancholy. So I acted, and in hindsight it was perhaps not the kindest or the wisest thing to do, but I could think of nothing else at the time. And the effect was certainly as dramatic as I could have wished for.

“Have you no greeting for me, Fool?” I asked quietly in my own tongue, echoing his words to me on a similar springtime afternoon, long ago and a half a world away.

I was not prepared for the violence of his reaction. His contemplative manner was gone in an instant as he spun around, knocking the marionette to the floor in a forgotten tangle of strings. He nearly fell himself, but by flinging out a hand to catch the edge of the worktable he managed to avoid disaster. He stared at me for no more than a shocked instant, his brown eyes wide in a face that had gone an alarming shade of grey under its pigment. Then his eyelids fluttered closed and the tension went out of his body like a cut string as he tumbled bonelessly to the floor.

I am afraid I batted the unfortunate Eylas aside quite rudely, though I have little memory of it. I have a vague impression that he tried to intercept me, but I must have pushed him out of the way, because a moment later I was kneeling at the Fool’s side.

He had fallen awkwardly, with one of his legs bent under him at an uncomfortable angle. A stray wisp of hair had fallen across his face, moving gently with his breathing. He looked heartbreakingly tired.

Hardly noticing Eylas’ increasingly indignant exclamations, I looked around the sunlit room and saw a low couch against one wall. I lifted the Fool carefully in my arms. I had forgotten, as I always did, how delicate he was despite his wiry strength. I could feel his bones shifting under my hands.

I lay him down on the couch carefully and settled myself on the floor near his head, clasping one of his hands in mine. It was only then that I realized that Eylas was tugging at my shoulder, trying to forcibly remove me. He was a slight old man, and I had been living by my own strength for some time. Needless to say, his furious heaving had little effect, although I did turn my head to look at him.

He was livid. “I do not know what you said to him,” he sputtered, “but I wish you to leave! Immediately!” His black eyes were narrowed angrily, his expression uncompromising. I wavered between amusement and annoyance. Annoyance won out.

“I am not leaving,” I said flatly. “I will stay until he wakes.” I turned my back on Eylas firmly and ignored him. After a bit I heard him step back a pace, muttering something uncomplimentary. Then he was silent.

The Fool stirred, wrinkling his nose a little, and I tensed, my eyes fixed on his face. He sighed, frowned, and opened his eyes with a small, puzzled noise, blinking dazedly at the ceiling. Then he turned his head, and saw me.

He stared at me for one exquisitely tense moment, his face utterly blank with shock. Then, “I’ve gone mad,” he whispered, brokenly.

“No,” I contradicted him, unable to keep from grinning broadly. “You haven’t. Fool –” I broke off. I had thought of a million things to say to him over the years, but now I could not remember a single one of them. So I just looked at him. His skin was perhaps a shade darker, and there were one or two lines in his face that had not been there before. Other than these small details, however, he looked remarkably unchanged.

He stared back at me. Then he scrambled to his feet. I rose with him, offering a steadying hand which he ignored. He grasped my forearms, wonderingly. Then his hands moved up to my shoulders, my cheeks, and gently smoothed the hair back from my forehead. He touched me helplessly, seeming half unaware of what he was doing, as if the testimony of his eyes was not enough and this was the only way he could make sure that I was real.

I stood quietly, smiling at him, until his hands finally came to rest - one on my right shoulder and the other carefully cupping the back of my head. He leaned forward until our foreheads touched, and looked into my eyes. His were nearly as dark as mine, now, the clear deep dark brown of fine Jamaillian coffee.

“Fitz?” His voice was soft, hesitant. At the sound of my name from his lips I felt something inside me let go, something that had been locked painfully tight for the better part of a century.

“Beloved,” I replied, my voice thick with emotion, “I’ve been looking for you.”

He sighed, closing his eyes, and collapsed into my embrace. I do not know how long we stood that way. Eventually I pulled back, and saw that he was crying.

“Fool?” I asked, reaching up to brush away his tears.

“It is nothing,” he said, straightening. “Only that I do not want to wake up.”

I stepped back, staring at him. “What can you possibly mean by that?”

He waggled a finger at me, with a smile that was part exasperation and part wryness. “My dear FitzChivalry,” he began, and I was vividly reminded of the old days, when I would stubbornly refuse to grasp something that he was trying to explain to me. “You cannot be here. I left you half a century ago – you are either dead or in your dotage. Perhaps you were dead long ago. What is more, leaving the youthful vision that I see before me aside, how could you have found me? No, Fitz,” he finished, shaking his head mournfully, “this is manifestly a dream.”

I gaped at him. I had no idea how to counter such a statement.

Eylas stepped into the sudden silence. “Ulai,” he said hesitantly, “who is this man?”

The Fool turned sharply to face him. “Eylas?” he asked in surprise. “Why are you in my dream?”

Eylas looked confused. “Dream?” he said. “What are you talking about?”

The Fool looked suddenly uncertain. I found my voice again. “I am going to choose not to be offended by your lack of confidence in my ability to follow a trail,” I said, a little dryly. “As for the other – I am not sure that I can explain it any more than you can. I believe, however, that it may have something to do with the Skill – remember when you and Dutiful’s coterie healed me? I think – it is the only explanation I can imagine – that it may have gone even farther than we thought. I – well, I do not seem to have aged at all since then.” I shifted uncomfortably. I did not know how I felt about my unexpected longevity. I distrusted the Skill, but I was not so blind as to scorn such a gift.

The Fool covered his mouth with one slim hand. There was a silence that was filled only by the sound of the Fool’s breathing and by Eylas switching off between worried glances at the Fool and accusing glances at me.

At length, he lowered his hand. Whatever expression it had hidden had been replaced by one of determined composure. “Eylas. Please find Fitz a place to sleep. I – put him in my room, if you will. If this is a dream it doesn’t matter, I suppose, but – I am going out,” he finished abruptly. He looked at me, one eyebrow cocked. “I very much hope that you are still here when I return,” he said. “I cannot tell you how much I hope for that.” Then he turned and strode out of the room, lifting a dark blue cloak from a hook on his way out. I heard the sound of the front door opening and closing.

The house was very quiet as I stared after him, unsure what to think. None of my plans had gone past just finding the Fool. It had seemed to me that that would be enough.

Eylas turned to me and said, with great indignation, “Who are you?”

***

Perhaps two hours later, I sat on a makeshift bedroll in a corner of the Fool’s room. Night had fallen, and the Fool had not returned.

I looked up at the sound of the door opening to see the Fool entering with a candle and a strange expression. I half stood, but thought better of it and plopped heavily back onto the blankets.

He put the candle down. Then he sat down on his bed. We were close enough to touch, but we did not.

“I have decided you are real,” he informed me, still with that unfamiliar look on his face. I could make nothing of it.

“Ah,” I answered, at length.

He sighed and slumped forward, resting his elbows on his knees and pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I don’t understand!” he burst out. “I don’t – but what are we supposed to do? What is left?”

I got up and sat next to him on the bed. He leaned toward me, a little. “Fool.”

He looked up. “What?”

I took a breath, and marveled at the feeling of understanding something that he did not. “We do not have to do anything at all,” I told him. “I am here because I want to be, not because the world has encountered some great crisis and needs you to fix it. We can save the world again if you want to,” I added wryly, “but that never seemed to turn out very well for either of us.”

“I have learned to enjoy peace,” I added, when he did nothing in response but stare at me. “We have sacrificed much to make the world what it is. Do you not think that perhaps we have earned the right to rest?”

He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was smiling, eyes shining in the dim candlelight. “It seems that you do not have a monopoly on making matters more complicated than they have to be."

There was silence for some time as we looked at each other. I felt whole, complete, and somewhere in the recesses of my mind I heard a quiet voice whisper, Pack.

At length, I felt the Fool place a cool hand gently on top of mine on the coverlet. “Well, Fitz,” he said, and there was such tenderness in his voice that it brought tears pricking at the backs of my eyes. “Shall we live?”