Assassins quest, p.35
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       Assassins Quest, p.35
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  I had planned well. I knew which rooms were Regal’s bedchamber and sitting room, I knew the hour at which he would be at dinner with his guests. I had studied the door and window latches on several buildings in Blue Lake. I found nothing I was unfamiliar with. I had secured some small tools, and a length of light line would provide my exit. I would enter and leave without a trace. My poisons waited in my belt pouch.

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  Two awls taken from a cobbler’s shop earlier in the day provided my hand grips as I worked my way down the roof. I thrust them, not into the tough shakes, but between them so they caught on the overlapping shakes below. I was most nervous for the moments when part of my body dangled off the roof, with no clear view of what was happening below. At the crucial moment, I swung my legs a few times for impetus, and braced myself to let go.

  Trap-trap.

  I froze where I was, my legs curled under the eave of the roof while I clung to the two awls sunk between the shakes. I did not even breathe. It was not Nighteyes.

  No. Small Ferret. Trap-trap. Go away. Trap-trap.

  It’s a trap?

  Trap-trap for Fitz-Wolf. Old Blood knows, Big Ferret said, go with, go with, warn Fitz-Wolf. Rolf-Bear knew your smell. Trap-trap. Go away.

  I almost cried out when a small warm body suddenly struck my leg and then ran up my clothes. In a moment, a ferret poked its whiskery face into mine. Trap-trap, he insisted. Go away, go away.

  Dragging my body back up onto the roof was more difficult than lowering it down. I had a bad moment when my belt caught on the edge of the eaves. After a bit of wriggling, I got loose and slowly slithered back up onto the roof. I lay still a moment, catching my breath, while the ferret sat between my shoulders, explaining over and over. Trap-trap. A tiny, savagely predatory mind was his, and I sensed a great anger in him. I would not have chosen such a bond-animal for myself, but someone had. Someone who was no more.

  Big Ferret hurt to death. Tells Small Ferret, go with, go with. Take the smell. Warn Fitz-Wolf. Trap-trap.

  There was so much I wanted to ask. Somehow Black Rolf had interceded for me with the Old Blood. Since I had left Tradeford, I had feared that every Witted one I encountered would be against me. But someone had sent this small creature to warn me. And he had held to his purpose, even though his bond-partner was dead. I tried to learn more from him, but there was not much more in that small mind. Great hurt and outrage at the passing of his bond-partner. A determination to warn me. I would never learn who Big Ferret had been, nor how he had discovered this plan nor how his bond-beast had managed to conceal himself in Will’s possessions. For that was whom he showed me waiting silently in the room below. One-Eye. The trap-trap.

  Come with me? I offered him. Fierce as he was, he still seemed small and all alone. To touch minds with him was like seeing what remained of an animal cloven in two. The pain drove from his mind all save his purpose. There was room for only one other thing now.

  No. Go with, go with. Hide in One-Eye’s things. Warn Fitz-Wolf. Go with, go with. Find Old Blood Hater. Hide-hide. Wait, wait. Old Blood Hater sleep, Small Ferret kill.

  He was a small animal, with a small mind. But an image of Regal, Old Blood Hater, was fixed in that simple mind. I wondered how long it had taken Big Ferret to implant this notion firmly enough for him to carry it for weeks. Then I knew. A dying wish. The little creature had been driven all but mad by the death of his bond-human. This had been Big Ferret’s last message to him. It seemed a futile errand for so small a beast.

  Come with me, I suggested gently. How can Small Ferret kill Old Blood Hater?

  In an eye-blink he was at my throat. I actually felt the sharp teeth grip the vein in my throat. Snip-snip when he sleeps. Drink his blood like a coney. No more Big Ferret, no more holes, no more coneys. Only Old Blood Hater. Snip-snip. He let go of my jugular and slipped suddenly inside my shirt. Warm. His small clawed feet were icy on my skin.

  I had a strip of dried meat in my pocket. I lay on the roof and fed it to my fellow assassin. I would have persuaded him to come with me if I could, but I sensed he could no more change his mind than I could refuse to go to Verity. It was all he had left of Big Ferret. Pain, and a dream of revenge. “Hide-hide. Go with, go with the One-Eye. Smell the Old Blood Hater. Wait until he sleeps. Then snip-snip. Drink his blood like a coney’s. ”

  Yes-yes. My hunt. Trap-trap Fitz-Wolf. Go away, go away.

  I took his advice. Someone had given much to send me this courier. I did not wish to face Will in any case. Much as I wanted to kill him, I knew now I was not his equal in the Skill. Nor did I wish to spoil Small Ferret’s chance. There is honor among assassins, of a kind. It warmed my heart to know I was not Regal’s only enemy. Soundless as the dark, I made my way over the inn roof and then down to the street by the stable.

  I returned to my dilapidated inn, paid my copper and took a place at a plank table beside two other men. We ate the inn’s potato-and-onion mainstay. When a hand fell on my shoulder, I did not startle so much as flinch. I had known there was someone behind me; I had not expected him to touch me. My hand went to my belt knife stealthily as I turned on my bench to face him. My tablemates went on eating, one noisily. No man in this inn professed an interest in any business save his own.

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  I looked up at Starling’s smiling face and my guts turned over inside me. “Tom!” she greeted me jovially, and claimed a seat at the table beside me. The man next to me gave over the space without a word, scraping his bowl along with himself over the stained table plank. After a moment I took my hand from my knife and put it back on the table’s edge. Starling gave a small nod to that gesture. She wore a black cloak of good thick wool, trimmed with yellow embroidery. Small silver rings graced her ears now. She was entirely too pleased with herself to suit me. I said nothing, but only looked at her. She made a small gesture toward my bowl.

  “Please, go on eating. I didn’t mean to disturb your meal. You look as if you could use it. Short rations lately?”

  “A bit,” I said softly. When she said no more, I finished the soup, wiping out the wooden bowl with the last two bites of coarse bread that had come with it. By then Starling had attracted the attention of a serving girl, who brought us two mugs of ale. She took a long draw from hers, made a face, and then set it back on the table. I sipped at mine and found it no worse to the palate than the lake water that was the alternative.

  “Well?” I said at last when she still had not spoken. “What do you want?”

  She smiled affably, toying with the handle of her mug. “You know what I want. I want a song, one that will live after me. ” She glanced about us, especially at the man who was still noisily sucking down his soup. “Have you a room?” she asked me.

  I shook my head. “I’ve a pallet in the loft. And I’ve no songs for you, Starling. ”

  She shrugged her shoulders, a tiny movement. “I’ve no songs for you right now, but I’ve got tidings that would interest you. And I’ve a room. At an inn some way from here. Walk there with me, and then we shall talk. There was a fine shoulder of pork roasting on the hearth fire when I left. It would likely be cooked by the time we got there. ”

  Every sense I had pricked up at the mention of meat. I could smell it, I could almost taste it. “I couldn’t afford it,” I told her bluntly.

  “I could,” she offered blandly. “Get your things. I’ll share my room as well. ”

  “And if I decline?” I asked quietly.

  Again she made the tiny shrugging motion. “It’s your choice. ” She returned my gaze levelly. I could not decide if there was a threat in her small smile or not.

  After a time I rose and went to the loft. When I returned, I had my things. Starling was waiting for me by the base of the ladder.

  “Nice cloak,” she observed wryly. “Haven’t I seen it somewhere before?”

  “Perhaps you have,” I s
aid quietly. “Would you like to see the knife that goes with it?”

  Starling only smiled more broadly and made a small warding gesture with her hands. She turned and walked away, not looking back to see if I followed. Again, there was that curious mixture of trusting me and challenging me. I walked behind her.

  Outside it was evening. The sharp wind that blew through the streets was full of lake damp. Even though it was not raining, I felt the moisture beading on my clothes and skin. My shoulder began to ache immediately. There were no street torches still burning; what little light there was escaped from shutters and doorsills. But Starling walked with sureness and confidence, and I followed, my eyes swiftly adjusting to the darkness.

  She led me away from the waterfront, away from the poorer quarters of the town, up to the merchant streets and the inns that served the tradefolk of the town. It was not so far from the inn where King Regal was not truly staying at all. She opened an inn door that was inscribed with a tusked boar’s head, and nodded to me to precede her. I did, but cautiously, glancing about well before I entered. Even after I saw no guardsmen, I was not sure if I was running my head into a snare or not.

  This inn was bright and warm, with glass as well as shutters for its windows. The tables were clean, the reeds on the floor almost fresh, and the smell of roasting pork filled the air. A serving boy walked by us with a tray full of brimming mugs, looked at me, then raised an eyebrow to Starling, obviously questioning her choice of men. Starling replied with a swooping bow, and in the process swept off her damp cloak. I followed suit more slowly, and then trailed after her as she led me to a table near the hearth.

  She seated herself, then looked up at me. She was confident she had me now. “Let’s eat before we talk, shall we?” she invited me engagingly, and indicated the chair opposite her. I took the offered seat, but turned it so my back was to the wall and I could command a view of the room. A small smile twitched at her mouth and her dark eyes danced. “You’ve nothing to fear from me, I assure you. On the contrary, it is I who place myself at risk in seeking you out. ”

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  She glanced about, then called to a boy named Oak that we wished two platters of the roast pork, some fresh bread and butter, and apple wine to go with it. He hastened off to fetch it, and served it out on our table with a charm and grace that bespoke his interest in Starling. He exchanged some small chatter with her; he noticed me very little, save to make a face of distaste as he stepped around my damp carry-basket. Another patron called him away, and Starling attacked her plate with appetite. After a moment, I sampled mine. I had not had fresh meat in some days, and the hot crackling fat on the pork almost made me dizzy with its savor. The bread was fragrant, the butter sweet. I had not tasted food this good since Buckkeep. For a second my appetite was all I considered. Then the taste of the apple wine put me suddenly in mind of Rurisk and how he had died of poisoned wine. I set my goblet carefully back on the table and recalled my caution. “So. You sought me out, you say?”

  Starling nodded as she chewed. She swallowed, wiped her mouth, and added, “And you were not easy to find, for I was not asking folk for news of you. Only looking with my own two eyes. I hope you appreciate that. ”

  I gave a half nod. “And now that you have found me? What do you want of me? A bribe for your silence? If so, you’ll have to content yourself with a few coppers. ”

  “No. ” She took a sip of wine, then cocked her head to look at me. “It is as I’ve told you. I want a song. It seems to me I’ve missed one already, not following you when you were . . . removed from our company. Though I hope you’ll favor me with the details of exactly how you survived. ” She leaned forward, the power of her trained voice dropping down to a confidential whisper. “I can’t tell you what a thrill that was for me, when I heard they’d found those six guardsmen dead. I had thought I was wrong about you, you see. I truly believed they had dragged off poor old Tom the shepherd as a scapegoat. Chivalry’s son, I told myself, would never go as quietly as all that. And so I let you go and I didn’t follow. But when I heard the news, it put a shiver up my spine as stood every hair on my body on end. “It was him,’ I chided myself. “The Bastard was there and I watched him taken away and never stirred a finger. ’ You can’t imagine how I cursed myself for doubting my instincts. But then I decided, well, if you survived, you’d still come here. You’re on your way to the Mountains, aren’t you?”

  I just looked at her, a flat gaze that would have sent any Buckkeep stableboy scuttling, and wiped the grin from the face of a Buck guard. But Starling was a minstrel. Singers of songs are never easily abashed. She went on with her meal, waiting for my answer. “Why would I be going to the Mountains?” I asked her softly.

  She swallowed, took a sip of wine, then smiled. “I don’t know why. To rally to Kettricken’s aid perhaps? Whatever the reason, I suspect there’s a song in it, don’t you?”

  A year ago, her charm and smile might have won me. A year ago I would have wanted to believe this engaging woman, I’d have wanted her to be my friend. Now she only made me tired. She was an encumbrance, a connection to avoid. I didn’t answer her question. I only said, “It’s a foolish time to even think of going to the Mountains. The winds are against the trip; there will be no barge runs until spring; and King Regal has forbidden travel or trade between the Six Duchies and the Mountains. No one’s going to the Mountains. ”

  She nodded her agreement. “I understand that the King’s guards pressed two barges and their crews a week ago, and forced them to attempt the trip. Bodies from at least one barge washed back to shore. Men and horses. No one knows if the other soldiers made it across or not. But”—she smiled with satisfaction and drew closer to me as she dropped her voice—“I do know of one group who are still bound for the Mountains. ”

  “Who?” I demanded.

  She made me wait a moment.

  “Smugglers. ” She spoke the word very softly.

  “Smugglers?” I asked cautiously. It made sense. The tighter the restrictions on trade, the more profitable for those who managed it. There would always be men who would risk their lives for a profit.

  “Yes. But that is not truly why I sought you out. Fitz, you must have heard that King Regal has come to Blue Lake. But it’s all a lie, a trap to lure you in. You must not go there. ”

  “I knew that,” I told her calmly.

  “How?” she demanded. She spoke quietly, but I could see how annoyed she was that I had known before she had told me.

  “Perhaps a little bird told me,” I told her loftily. “You know how it is, we Witted ones speak the tongues of all the animals. ”

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  “Truly?” she asked me, gullible as a child.

  I raised one eyebrow at her. “It would be more interesting to me to know how you knew. ”

  “They tracked us down to question us. Everybody they could find from Madge’s caravan. ”

  “And?”

  “And such tales as we told! According to Creece, several sheep were lost along the way, dragged off at night without a sound. And when Tassin told of the night you tried to rape her, she said it was only then she noticed that your nails were black like a wolf’s claws, and your eyes glowed in the darkness. ”

  “I never tried to rape her!” I exclaimed, and then hushed myself when the waiting-boy turned toward us inquiringly.

  Starling leaned back in her chair. “But such a fine tale as it made, it fair brought tears to my eyes. She showed the Skill-wizard the mark on her cheek where you’d clawed her, and said she would never have escaped you but for the wolfsbane that happened to grow nearby. ”

  “It sounds to me as if you should follow Tassin about if you are looking for a song,” I muttered disgustedly.

  “Oh, but the tale I told was even better,” she began, then shook her head at the serving boy as he approached. She pushed away her empty plate and glanced about the
room. It was starting to fill with the evening’s customers. “I have a room upstairs,” she invited me. “We can talk more privately there. ”

  This second meal had finally filled my belly. And I was warm. I should have felt wary, but the food and the warmth were making me sleepy. I tried to focus my thoughts. Whoever these smugglers were, they offered the hope of getting to the Mountains. The only hope I’d had lately. I gave a small nod. She rose and I followed with my carry-basket.

  The room upstairs was clean and warm. There was a feather bed on the bedframe, with clean wool blankets upon it. A pottery ewer of water and a washbasin rested on a small stand by the bed. Starling lit several candles in the room, driving the shadows back into the corners. Then she gestured me in. As she latched the door behind us, I sat down on the chair. Odd, how a simple, clean room could seem such a luxury to me now. Starling sat down on the bed.

  “I thought you said you had no more coin than I did,” I commented.

  “I didn’t, back then. But since I came to Blue Lake, I’ve been in demand. Even more so since the guards’ bodies were found. ”

  “How is that?” I asked her coldly.

  “I’m a minstrel,” she retorted. “And I was there when the Wit-Bastard was taken. Do you think I can’t tell the story of that well enough to be worth a coin or two?”

  “So. I see. ” I mulled over what she had told me, then asked, “So, do I owe my glowing red eyes and fangs to your telling?”

  She gave a snort of disdain. “Of course not. Some street-corner balladmaker came up with that. ” Then she halted, and smiled almost to herself. “But I’ll admit to a bit of embroidery. As I tell it, Chivalry’s Bastard was stoutly thewed and fought like a buck, a young man in the prime of his years, despite the fact that his right arm still bore the savage marks of King Regal’s sword. And above his left eye, he’d a streak of white as wide as a man’s hand in his hair. It took three guardsmen just to hold him, and he did not stop fighting, even when the leader of the guard struck him so hard it knocked the teeth from the front of his mouth. ” She paused and waited. When I said nothing, she cleared her throat. “You might thank me for making it a bit less likely that folk would recognize you on the street. ”

 
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