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“Beloved, Fool, Amber, Lord Golden. Who are you really?”

My friend looked in my direction from his seat by the fire. A hint of a smile hid at the corners of his lips. “Who am I? After all of these years you ask me this?”

“You are my friend of years; I don’t doubt that. I just mean that they’re all very different identities, aren’t they?” I sat down and set the Fool’s tea before him on the table, cradling my own in my hands as I leaned back.

“And you have known them all. Do you ask me which one is real? I believe that we discussed this once upon a time. They are all me. Facets of me.”

“But how can they be so different, even contradictory?”

“Ah, Fitz. You are full of far more contradictions than I, my friend.”

I shook my head. If he didn’t want to answer, that was fine. I sipped my tea and looked into the flames. Candle light and the fire gave the room a warm glow and created another layer between us and the outside world. Silence won me what words would not. Somewhat.

“It’s hard to describe, really.”

“Try. I’m curious.”

“Chade trained you too well in the art of spying: you think that all knowledge should be yours simply because you’re curious.”

“If you don’t want to tell me just say so, Fool. I apologize if it was too personal a question, it is just something that confuses me. I’ll respect your privacy if you state plainly that you have no wish to explain it.”

A huff. “It is not that I have no wish to, it’s just honestly difficult to explain. At first it was just a necessary thing, to become King Shrewd’s jester. To play the role. But how long can one play a role before the reactions become ingrained, the words come too easily, and the role becomes you or perhaps the other way around or both? None of them are lies. They are just different and all have their places.”

“So, they are roles you play?”

“No. I’ve said it already: they are me. All of them. Facets of me. Has old age begun to affect you, Fitzy?”

I gave him a look from beneath my brows, though he could not see it. The mockery was all Fool. “I suppose I can understand roles. I’ve worn several identities myself. With Chade I was his apprentice assassin, with Molly I was once just the scribe’s boy…”

“And assassin and scribe’s boy see things very differently, do they not?” asked the Fool.

“They do, I suppose.” But I did not want to talk about myself. I did not want to describe how the scribe’s boy, grown to Holder Tom Badgerlock, willfully ignored the things that the assassin’s apprentice would have noticed. I did not want to recall all of the things that the assassin knew and had done. My silence stretched and the Fool made a humming sound.

“I see you do understand.”

“Those things are necessarily separate though. What I wanted was a life free of intrigue and blood shed.”

“There were things that I preferred to leave behind as well.” The Fool did not elaborate and I did not press. “But you do see now, do you not? I do not dissemble, I simply draw on different parts of myself. Parts that react to things differently and see things differently.”

“So part of you is a woman?” I could not resist.

None of me cares about plumbing. I tell you again and again that it was a more convenient role.” His long fingers curled around his mug of tea and brought it to his lips. He inhaled the fragrance and smiled before taking a slow sip. “You are awfully fixated on what I have or don’t have underneath my clothes. Why, Fitz, are you at last willing to return my affections?”

I spluttered. “I was only curious.”

The Fool’s smile widened. “So many have said, I’m sure. You’re still interested.”

“Enough nonsense.” I declared gruffly and rose to put another log on the fire simply because I felt I could not sit still.

“So. A query in exchange for yours.” The Fool set down his tea. “If you did know with absolutely certainty what manner of plumbing I have, would it change anything?”

I frowned and thought about it. I knew the answer instinctively, but I owed it to him that I take the matter seriously. “No. After all we’ve been through, it hardly seems to matter. It wouldn’t change anything.”

The Fool looked a bit sad, but his lips smiled still. “It wouldn’t,” he confirmed. “And there is one thing that all of my selves have in common.” I watched as the Fool stood. He crossed the small distance between us and stood before me so that I had to tilt my head up to look into his face. His stance changed.

Lazy confidence, a slight smirk, lowered eyelids, a Jamailian accent. “You’re mine, Badgerlock.”

A sudden shift, still elegant but in a more reserved way, hands folded, shoulders relaxed rather than squared, kneeling before me with a wistful expression full of longing. “I have loved you for so long. I would give you up if it meant your happiness, but I would never stop loving you no matter how long or how far we were apart.”

A mischievous grin, a lifting of the chin, a shift of the shoulders, and the Fool put his hands on my thighs as he rose from his crouch to kiss me on my mouth. “You’re beautiful. You fascinate me. Amaze me. Complete me.”

The grin faded and Beloved drew back and touched my cheek gently. A fond expression that seemed far older than the face that housed it. “Beloved, I name you. My catalyst.”

The fire crackled into the silence. Once, I had said words that had never needed saying. Words that would stay with both of us until the end of our days. I’d been forgiven for that and I would not repeat the same mistake again. The Fool remained as he was for a time, then he straightened, his fingertips sliding down my jaw, and returned to his seat, a hand trailing along the table top. The air between us was thick and heavy with the meaning that his words had carried, and I knew that one wrong word or action could shatter us. I knew only one response that could suffice.

“FitzChivalry Farseer.”

The Fool inhaled sharply, and I saw his hands clench into fists. His head bowed. Did he expect me to correct him? To follow with my name is FitzChivalry, not Beloved, or did he hope for something else?

I spoke into the stillness. “I name you FitzChivalry Farseer.”

The Fool choked and then sobbed, clasping a hand over his mouth and curling forward to contain his emotions. I knew how stupid I had been for ever calling him anything else.