Assassins quest, p.11
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       Assassins Quest, p.11
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “Well, I’d wager you could say that about anywhere in the Six Duchies, at least the coastal ones. The saying now is that we get new taxes more often than we get a new moon. ” He glanced about us as if he could see, and I guessed he had not been blind long. “And the other new saying is that half the taxes go to feed the Farrowmen who collect them. ”

  “Josh!” one of his partners rebuked him, and he turned to her with a smile.

  “You can’t tell me there are any about just now, Honey. I’ve a nose that could smell a Farrowman at a hundred paces. ”

  “And can you smell who you are talking to, then?” she asked him wryly. Honey was the older of the two women, perhaps my age.

  “A lad a bit down on his luck, I’d say. And therefore, not some fat Farrowman come to collect taxes. Besides, I knew he couldn’t be one of Bright’s collectors the moment he started sniveling over the price of dinner. When have you known one of them to pay for anything at an inn or tavern?”

  I frowned to myself at that. When Shrewd had been on the throne, nothing was taken by his soldiers or tax collectors without some recompense offered. Evidently it was a nicety Lord Bright did not observe, at least in Buck. But it did recall me to my own manners.

  “May I offer to refill your mug, Harper Josh? And those of your companions as well?”

  “What’s this?” asked the old man, between a smile and a raised eyebrow. “You growl about spending coin to fill your belly, but you’d put it down willingly to fill mugs for us?”

  “Shame to the lord that takes a minstrel’s songs, and leaves their throat dry from the singing of it,” I replied with a smile.

  The women exchanged glances behind Josh’s back, and Honey asked me with gentle mockery, “And when were you last a lord, young fellow?”

  “ ’Tis but a saying,” I said after a moment, awkwardly. “But I wouldn’t grudge the coin for the songs I’ve heard, especially if you’ve a bit of news to go with it. I’m headed up the river road; have you perchance just come down?”

  “No, we’re headed up that way ourselves,” put in the younger woman brightly. She was perhaps fourteen, with startlingly blue eyes. I saw the other woman make a hushing motion at her. She introduced them. “As you’ve heard, good sir, this is Harper Josh, and I am Honey. My cousin is Piper. And you are . . . ?”

  Two blunders in one short conversation. One, to speak as if I still resided at Buckkeep and these were visiting minstrels, and the other, to have no name planned out. I searched my mind for a name, and then after a bit too much of a pause, blurted out, “Cob. ” And then wondered with a shiver why I had taken to myself the name of a man I’d known and killed.

  “Well . . . Cob,” and Honey paused before saying the name just as I had, “we might have a bit of news for you, and we’d welcome a mug of anything, whether you’re lately a lord or not. Just who are you hoping we won’t have seen on the road looking for you?”

  “Beg pardon?” I asked quietly, and then lifted my own empty mug to signal the kitchen boy.

  “He’s a runaway prentice, Father,” Honey told her father with great certainty. “He carries a scribe’s case strapped to his bundle, but his hair’s grown out, and there’s not even a dot of ink on his fingers. ” She laughed at the chagrin on my face, little guessing the cause. “Oh, come . . . Cob, I’m a minstrel. When we aren’t singing, we’re witnessing anything we can to find a deed to base a song on. You can’t expect us not to notice things. ”

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  “I’m not a runaway apprentice,” I said quietly, but had no ready lie to follow the statement. How Chade would have rapped my knuckles over this blundering!

  “We don’t care if you are, lad,” Josh comforted me. “In any case, we haven’t heard any cry of angry scribers looking for lost apprentices. These days, most would be happy if their bound lads ran away . . . one less mouth to feed in hard times. ”

  “And a scriber’s boy scarcely gets a broken nose or a scarred face like that from a patient master,” Piper observed sympathetically. “So small blame to you if you did run away. ”

  The kitchen boy came at last, and they were merciful to my flat purse, ordering no more than mugs of beer for themselves. First Josh, and then the women came to share my table. The kitchen boy must have thought better of me for treating the minstrels well, for when he brought their mugs, he refilled mine as well, and did not charge me for it. Still, it broke another silver bit to coppers to pay for their drinks. I tried to be philosophical about it, and reminded myself to leave a copper bit for the boy when I left.

  “So, then,” I began when the boy had left, “what news from downriver, then?”

  “And have not you just come from there yourself?” Honey asked tartly.

  “No, my lady, in truth I had come cross-country, from visiting some shepherd friends,” I extemporized. Honey’s manner was beginning to wear on me.

  “ “My lady,’ ” she said softly to Piper and rolled her eyes. Piper giggled. Josh ignored them.

  “Downriver is much the same as up these days, only more so,” he told me. “Hard times, and harder to come for those who farm. The food grain went to pay the taxes, so the seed grain went to feed the children. So only what was left went into the fields, and no man grows more by planting less. Same is true for the flocks and herds. And no signs that the taxes will be less this harvest. And even a goose-girl that can’t cipher her own age knows that less take away more leaves naught but hunger on the table. It’s worst along the salt water. If a person goes out fishing, who knows what will happen to home before he returns? A farmer plants a field, knowing it won’t yield enough both for taxes and family, and that there will be less than half of it left standing if the Red Ships come to pay a call. There’s been a clever song made about a farmer who tells the tax collector that the Red Ships have already done his job for him. ”

  “Save that clever minstrels don’t sing it,” Honey reminded him tartly.

  “Red Ships raid Buck’s coast as well, then,” I said quietly.

  Josh gave a snort of bitter laughter. “Buck, Bearns, Rippon, or Shoaks . . . I doubt the Red Ships care where one duchy ends and another begins. If the sea brushes up against it, they’ll raid there. ”

  “And our ships?” I asked softly.

  “The ones that have been taken away from us by the Raiders are doing very well. Those left defending us, well, they are as successful as gnats at bothering cattle. ”

  “Does no one stand firm for Buck these days?” I asked, and heard the despair in my own voice.

  “The Lady of Buckkeep does. Not only firm, but loud. There’s some as say all she does is cry out and scold, but others know that she doesn’t call on them to do what she hasn’t already done herself. ” Harper Josh spoke as if he knew this at first hand.

  I was mystified, but did not wish to appear too ignorant. “Such as?”

  “Everything she can. She wears no jewelry at all anymore. It’s all been sold and put toward paying patrol ships. She sold off her own ancestral lands, and put the money to paying mercenaries to man the towers. It’s said she sold the necklace given her by Prince Chivalry, his grandmother’s rubies, to King Regal himself, to buy grain and timber for Buck villages that wanted to rebuild. ”

  “Patience,” I whispered. I had seen those rubies once, long ago, when we had first been getting to know one another. She had deemed them too precious even to wear, but she had shown them to me and told me someday my bride might wear them. Long ago. I turned my head aside and struggled to control my face.

  “Where have you been sleeping this past year . . . Cob, that you know none of this?” Honey demanded sarcastically.

  “I have been away,” I said quietly. I turned back to the table and managed to meet her eyes. I hoped my face showed nothing.

  She cocked her head and smiled at me. “Where?” she countered brightly.

  I did not like her much at all. “I’ve b
een living by myself, in the forest,” I said at last.

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  “Why?” She smiled at me as she pressed me. I was certain she knew how uncomfortable she was making me.

  “Obviously, because I wished to,” I said. I sounded so much like Burrich when I said it, I almost looked over my shoulder for him.

  She made a small mouth at me, totally unrepentant, but Harper Josh set his mug down on the table a bit firmly. He said nothing, and the look he gave her from his blind eyes was no more than a flicker, but she subsided abruptly. She folded her hands at the edge of the table like a rebuked child, and for a moment I thought her quashed, until she looked up at me from under her lashes. Her eyes met mine directly, and the little smile she shot me was defiant. I looked away from her, totally mystified as to why she wished to peck at me like this. I glanced at Piper, only to find her face bright red with suppressed laughter. I looked down at my hands on the table, hating the blush that suddenly flooded my face.

  In an effort to start the conversation again, I asked, “Are there any other new tidings from Buckkeep?”

  Harper Josh gave a short bark of laughter. “Not much new misery to tell. The tales are all the same, with only the names of the villages and towns different. Oh, but there is one small bit, a rich one. Word is now that King Regal will hang the Pocked Man himself. ”

  I had been swallowing a sip of ale. I choked abruptly and demanded, “What?”

  “It’s a stupid joke,” Honey declared. “King Regal has had it cried about that he will give gold coin reward to any who can turn over to him a certain man, much scarred with the pox, or silver coin to any man who can give information as to where he may be found. ”

  “A pox-scarred man? Is that all the description?” I asked carefully.

  “He is said to be skinny, and gray-haired, and to sometimes disguise himself as a woman. ” Josh chuckled merrily, never guessing how his words turned my bowels to ice. “And his crime is high treason. Rumor says the King blames him for the disappearance of Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken and her unborn child. Some say he is just a cracked old man who claims to have been an adviser to Shrewd, and as such he has written to the Dukes of the Coastal Duchies, bidding them be brave, that Verity shall return and his child inherit the Farseer throne. But rumor also says, with as much wit, that King Regal hopes to hang the Pocked Man and thus end all bad luck in the Six Duchies. ” He chuckled again, and I plastered a sick smile on my face and nodded like a simpleton.

  Chade, I thought to myself. Somehow Regal had picked up Chade’s trail. If he knew he was pox scarred, what else might he know? He had obviously connected him to his masquerade as Lady Thyme. I wondered where Chade was now, and if he was all right. I wished with sudden desperation that I knew what his plans had been, what plot he had excluded me from. With a sudden sinking of heart, my perception of my actions flopped over. Had I driven Chade away from me to protect him from my plans, or had I abandoned him just when he needed his apprentice?

  “Are you still there, Cob? I see your shadow still, but your place at the table’s gone very quiet. ”

  “Oh, I’m here, Harper Josh!” I tried to put some life into my words. “Just mulling over all you’ve told me, that’s all. ”

  “Wondering what pocked old man he could sell to King Regal, by the look on his face,” Honey put in tartly. I suddenly perceived that she saw her constant belittlement and stings as a sort of flirtation. I quickly decided I had had enough companionship and talk for an evening. I was too much out of practice at dealing with folk. I would leave now. Better they thought me odd and rude than that I stayed longer and made them curious.

  “Well, I thank you for your songs, and your conversation,” I said as gracefully as I could. I fingered out a copper to leave under my mug for the boy. “And I had best take myself back to the road. ”

  “But it’s full dark outside!” Piper objected in surprise. She set down her mug and glanced at Honey, who looked shocked.

  “And cool, my lady,” I observed blithely. “I prefer the night for walking. The moon’s close to full, which should be light enough on a road as wide as the river road. ”

  “Have you no fear of the Forged ones?” Harper Josh asked in consternation.

  Now it was my turn to be surprised. “This far inland?”

  “You have been living in a tree,” Honey exclaimed. “All the roads have been plagued with them. Some travelers hire guards, archers, and swordsmen. Others, such as we, travel in groups when we can, and only by day. ”

  “Cannot the patrols at least keep them from the roads?” I asked in astonishment.

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  “The patrols?” Honey sniffed disdainfully. “Most of us would as soon meet Forged ones as a pack of Farrowmen with pikes. The Forged ones do not bother them, and so they do not bother the Forged ones. ”

  “What, then, do they patrol for?” I asked angrily.

  “Smugglers, mainly. ” Josh spoke before Honey could. “Or so they would have you believe. Many an honest traveler do they stop to search his belongings and take whatever they fancy, calling it contraband, or claiming it was reported stolen in the last town. Methinks Lord Bright does not pay them as well as they think they deserve, so they take whatever pay they are able. ”

  “And Prince . . . King Regal, he does nothing?” How the title and the question choked me.

  “Well, perhaps if you go so far as Tradeford, you might complain to him yourself,” Honey told me sarcastically. “I am sure he would listen to you, as he has not the dozens of messengers who have gone before. ” She paused, and looked thoughtful. “Though I have heard that if any Forged ones do make it far enough inland to be a bother, he has ways of dealing with them. ”

  I felt sickened and wretched. It had always been a matter of pride to King Shrewd that there was little danger of highwaymen in Buck, so long as one kept to the main roads. Now, to hear that those who should guard the King’s roads were little more than highwaymen themselves was like a small blade twisted in me. Not enough that Regal had claimed the throne for himself, and then deserted Buckkeep. He did not keep up even the pretense of ruling wisely. I wondered numbly if he was capable of punishing all Buck for the lackluster way he had been welcomed to the throne. Foolish wonder; I knew he was. “Well, Forged ones or Farrowmen, I still must be on my way, I fear,” I told them. I drank off the last of my mug and set it down.

  “Why not wait at least until the morning, lad, and then travel with us?” Josh suddenly offered. “The days are not too hot for walking, for there’s always a breeze off the river. And four are safer than three, these days. ”

  “I thank you kindly for the offer,” I began, but Josh interrupted me.

  “Don’t thank me, for I wasn’t making an offer, but a request. I’m blind, man, or close enough. Certainly you’ve noticed that. Noticed, too, that my companions are comely young women, though from the way Honey’s nipped at you, I fancy you’ve smiled more at Piper than at her. ”

  “Father!” indignantly from Honey, but Josh plowed on doggedly.

  “I was not offering you the protection of our numbers, but asking you to consider offering your right arm to us. We’re not rich folk; we’ve no coin to hire guards. And yet we must travel the roads, Forged ones or no. ”

  Josh’s fogged eyes met mine unerringly. Honey looked aside, lips folded tightly, while Piper openly watched me, a pleading look on her face. Forged ones. Pinned down, fists falling on me. I looked down at the tabletop. “I’m not much for fighting,” I told him bluntly.

  “At least you would see what you were swinging at,” he replied stubbornly. “And you’d certainly see them coming before I did. Look, you’re going the same direction we are. Would it be that hard for you to walk by day for a few days rather than by night?”

  “Father, don’t beg him!” Honey rebuked him.

  “I’d rather beg him to walk with us, then beg For
ged ones to let you go unharmed!” he said harshly. He turned his face back to me as he added, “We met some Forged ones, a couple of weeks back. The girls had the sense to run when I shouted at them to do so, when I could not keep up with them any longer. But we lost our food to them, and they damaged my harp, and . . . ”

  “And they beat him,” Honey said quietly. “And so we have vowed, Piper and I, that the next time we will not run from them, no matter how many. Not if it means leaving Papa. ” All the playful teasing and mockery had gone out of her voice. I knew she meant what she said.

  I will be delayed, I sighed to Nighteyes. Wait for me, watch for me, follow me unseen.

  “I will travel with you,” I conceded. I cannot say I made the offer willingly. “Though I am not a man who does well at fighting. ”

  “As if we couldn’t tell that from his face,” Honey observed in an aside to Piper. The mockery was back in her voice, but I doubted that she knew how deeply her words cut me.

  “My thanks are all I have to pay you with, Cob. ” Josh reached across the table for me, and I gripped hands with him in the ancient sign of a bargain settled. He grinned suddenly, his relief plain. “So take my thanks, and a share of whatever we’re offered as minstrels. We’ve not enough coin for a room, but the innkeeper has offered us shelter in his barn. Not like it used to be, when a minstrel got a room and a meal for the asking. But at least the barn has a door that shuts between us and the night. And the innman here has a good heart; he won’t begrudge extending shelter to you if I tell him you’re traveling with us as a guard. ”

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  “It will be more shelter than I’ve known for many a night,” I told him, attempting to be gracious. My heart had sunk into a cold place in the pit of my belly.

  What have you got yourself into now? Nighteyes wondered. As did I.

  5

  Confrontations

  WHAT IS THE Wit? Some would say it is a perversion, a twisted indulgence of spirit by which men gain knowledge of the lives and tongues of the beasts, eventually to become little more than beasts themselves. My study of it and its practitioners has led me to a different conclusion, however. The Wit seems to be a form of mind linking, usually with a particular animal, which opens a way for the understanding of that animal’s thoughts and feelings. It does not, as some have claimed, give men the tongues of the birds and beasts. A Witted one does have an awareness of life all across its wide spectrum, including humans and even some of the mightier and more ancient of trees. But a Witted one cannot randomly engage a chance animal in “conversation. ” He can sense an animal’s nearby presence, and perhaps know if the animal is wary or hostile or curious. But it does not give one command over the beasts of the land and the birds of the sky as some fanciful tales would have us believe. What the Wit may be is a man’s acceptance of the beast nature within himself, and hence an awareness of the element of humanity that every animal carries within it as well. The legendary loyalty that a bonded animal feels for his Witted one is not at all the same as what a loyal beast gives its master. Rather it is a reflection of the loyalty that the Witted one has pledged to his animal companion, like for like.

 
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