Assassins quest, p.36
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       Assassins Quest, p.36

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “Thank you. I suppose. How did Creece and Tassin react to that?”

  “They nodded all the while. My story only made theirs all the better, you see. ”

  “I see. But you still haven’t told me how you know it was a trap. ”

  “They offered us money for you. If any of us had had word from you. Creece wanted to know how much. We had been taken up to the King’s own sitting room for this questioning. To make us feel more important, I suppose. We were told the King himself felt ill after his long trip, and was resting right next door. While we were there, a servant came out, bringing the King’s cloak and his boots to be cleaned of mud. ” Starling gave me a small smile. “The boots were immense. ”

  “And you know the size of the King’s feet?” I knew she was correct. Regal had small hands and feet, and was more vain of them than many a court lady.

  “I’ve never been to court. But a few of those better born at our keep had been up to Buckkeep for occasions. They spoke much of the handsome youngest prince, of his fine manners and dark curling hair. And his tidy feet, and how well he danced on them. ” She shook her head. “I knew it was not King Regal in that room. The rest was easy to deduce. They had come to Blue Lake too promptly following the killings of the guards. They came for you. ”

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  “Perhaps,” I conceded. I was beginning to have a high opinion of Starling’s wits. “Tell me more of the smugglers. How did you come to hear of them?”

  She shook her head, smiling. “If you strike a bargain with them, it will be through me. And I shall be a part of it. ”

  “How are they getting to the Mountains?” I asked.

  She looked at me. “If you were a smuggler, would you tell others what route you used?” Then she shrugged. “I’ve heard gossip that smugglers have a way to cross the river. An old way. I know there was once a trade route that went upriver and then across. It fell out of favor when the river became so unpredictable. Since the bad fires a few years back, the river floods every year. When it does, it shifts in its bed. So the regular traders have come to rely more on boats than on a bridge that may or may not be intact. ” She paused to gnaw briefly at a thumbnail. “I think that at one time there was a bridge a way upstream, but after the river washed it out for the fourth consecutive year, no one had the heart to rebuild it. Someone else told me that in summer there is a pulley ferry, and that they used to cross on the ice in winter. In the years when the river freezes. Maybe they are hoping the river will freeze this year. My own thought is, when trade is stopped in one place, it starts in another. There will be a way across. ”

  I frowned. “No. There must be another way to the Mountains. ”

  Starling seemed mildly insulted that I’d doubt her. “Ask about it yourself, if you choose. You might enjoy waiting with the King’s Guard that strut all about the waterfront. But most folk will tell you to wait for spring. A few will tell you that if you want to get there in the winter, you don’t start from here. You could go south, around Blue Lake entirely. From there, I gather there are several trade routes to the Mountains, even in winter. ”

  “By the time I did that, it would be spring. I could get to the Mountains just as quickly by waiting it out here. ”

  “That’s another thing I’ve been told,” Starling agreed smugly.

  I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. Come to me. “Are there no close, easy ways across that damnable lake?”

  “No. If there were an easy way to cross, there would not still be guardsmen infesting the entire waterfront. ”

  There seemed no other choice for me. “Where would I find these smugglers?”

  Starling grinned broadly. “Tomorrow, I will take you to them,” she promised. She rose and stretched. “But tonight I must take myself to the Gilded Pin. I have not sung my songs there yet, but yesterday I was invited. I’ve heard their clients can be quite generous to traveling minstrels. ” She stooped to gather up her well-wrapped harp. I rose as she picked up her still-damp cloak.

  “I must be on my way as well,” I said politely.

  “Why not sleep here?” she offered. “Less chance of being recognized and a lot fewer vermin in this room. ” A smile twisted the corner of her mouth as she looked at my hesitant face. “If I wanted to sell you to the King’s Guard, I could have done it. As alone as you are, FitzChivalry, you had better decide to trust someone. ”

  When she called me by my name, it was as if something twisted inside me. And yet, “Why?” I asked her softly. “Why do you aid me? And don’t tell me it’s the hope of a song that may never be. ”

  “That shows how little you understand minstrels,” she said. “There is no more powerful lure for one than that. But I suppose there is more. No. I know there is. ” She looked up at me suddenly, her eyes meeting mine squarely. “I had a little brother. Jay. He was a guard stationed at the Antler Island Tower. He saw you fight the day the Raiders came. ” She gave a brief snort of laughter. “Actually, you stepped over him. You sank your axe into the man who had just struck him down. And waded deeper into the battle without even a glance back at him. ” She looked at me from the corner of her eye. “That is why I sing “Antler Tower Raid’ slightly differently from any other minstrel. He told me of it, and I sing you as he saw you. A hero. You saved his life. ”

  She looked abruptly aside from me. “For a time, anyway. He died later, fighting for Buck. But for a time, he lived because of your axe. ” She stopped speaking, and swung her cloak around her shoulders. “Stay here,” she told me. “Rest. I won’t be back until late. You can have the bed until then, if you want. ”

  She whisked out the door without waiting for a reply. I stood for a time staring at the closed door. FitzChivalry. Hero. Just words. But it was as if she had lanced something inside me, drained away some poison, and now I could heal. It was the strangest feeling. Get some sleep, I advised myself. I actually felt as if I could.

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  THERE ARE FEW spirits so free as those of traveling minstrels, at least within the Six Duchies. If a minstrel is sufficiently talented, he can expect almost all rules of conduct to be suspended for him. They are permitted to ask the most prying of questions as a normal part of their trade. Almost without exception, a minstrel can presume hospitality anywhere from the King’s own table to the lowliest hovel. They seldom marry in youth, though it is not unusual for them to bear children. Such children are free of the stigma of other bastards, and are frequently keep-raised to become minstrels themselves. It is expected of minstrels that they will consort with outlaws and rebels as well as nobles and merchants. They carry messages, bring news, and hold in their long memories many an agreement and promise. At least, so it is in times of peace and plenty.

  Starling came in so late, Burrich would have regarded it as early morning. I was awake the instant she touched the latch. I rolled quickly off her bed as she came in, then wrapped myself well in my cloak and lay down on the floor. “FitzChivalry,” she greeted me fuzzily, and I could smell the wine on her breath. She stripped off her damp cloak, looked sideways at me, then spread it over me as an extra covering. I closed my eyes.

  She dropped her outer clothing to the floor behind me with a fine disregard for my presence. I heard the give of the bed as she threw herself onto it. “Um. Still warm,” she muttered, shouldering into the bedding and pillows. “I feel guilty, taking your warm spot. ”

  Her guilt could not have been too sharp-edged, for in just a matter of moments her breathing went deep and even. I followed her example.

  I awoke very early and left the inn. Starling didn’t stir as I let myself out of her room. I walked until I found a bathhouse. The baths were almost deserted at this hour of the day; I had to wait while the day’s first water was warmed. When it was ready, I stripped down and clambered gingerly in. I eased the ache in my shoulder in the deep, hot tub. I washed
myself. Then I leaned back in the hot water and silence and thought.

  I didn’t like taking up with the smugglers. I didn’t like linking up with Starling. I couldn’t see any other choice. I could not think of how I’d bribe them to take me. I had little enough coin. Burrich’s earring? I refused to consider it. For a long time, I lay up to my chin in the water and refused to consider it. Come to me. I would find another way, I swore to myself. I would. I thought of what I had felt back in Tradeford when Verity had intervened to save me. That blast of Skill had left Verity without reserves. I did not know his situation, only that he had not hesitated to expend all he had for my sake. And if I had to choose between parting with Burrich’s earring and going to Verity, I would choose Verity. Not because he had Skill-summoned me, nor even for the oath I had sworn to his father. For Verity.

  I stood up and let the water stream off me. I dried off, spent a few minutes attempting to trim my beard, gave it up as a bad job, and went back to the Boar’s Head. I had one bad moment on my way back to the inn. A wagon passed me as I strode along, none other than the wagon of Dell the puppeteer. I kept walking briskly and the young journeyman driving the wagon gave no sign of noticing me. Nonetheless, I was glad to reach the inn and get inside.

  I found a corner table near the hearth and had the serving boy bring me a pot of tea and a loaf of morning bread. This last proved to be a Farrow concoction full of seeds and nuts and bits of fruit. I ate slowly, waiting for Starling to descend. I was both impatient to be out to meet these smugglers, and reluctant to put myself in Starling’s power. As the morning hours dragged by, I caught the serving boy looking oddly at me twice. The third time I caught his stare, I returned it until he blushed suddenly and looked aside. I divined then the reason for his interest. I’d spent the night in Starling’s room, and no doubt he wondered what would possess her to share quarters with such a vagabond. But it was still enough to make me uncomfortable. The day was more than halfway to noon anyway. I rose and went up the stairs to Starling’s door.

  I knocked quietly and waited. But it took a second round of louder knocking before I heard a sleepy reply. After a bit she came to the door, opened it a crack, then yawned at me and motioned me in. She wore only her leggings and a recently donned oversized tunic. Her curly dark hair was tousled all about her face. She sat down heavily on the edge of her bed, blinking her eyes as I closed and fastened the door behind me. “Oh, you took a bath,” she greeted me, and yawned again.

  “Is it that noticeable?” I asked her testily.

  She nodded at me affably. “I woke up once and thought you’d just left me here. I wasn’t worried about it, though. I knew you couldn’t find them without me. ” She rubbed her eyes, and then looked at me more critically. “What happened to your beard?”

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  “I tried to trim it. Without much success. ”

  She nodded in agreement. “But it was a good idea,” she said comfortingly. “It might make you look a bit less wild. And it might prevent Creece or Tassin or anyone else from our caravan from recognizing you. Here. I’ll help you. Go sit on that chair. Oh, and open the shutters, let some light in here. ”

  I did as she suggested, without much enthusiasm. She arose from the bed, stretched, and rubbed her eyes. She took a few moments to splash some water on her face, then worried her own hair back into order and fastened it with a couple of small combs. She belted the tunic to give it a shape, then slipped on her boots and laced them up. In a remarkably short time she was presentable. Then she came to me, and taking hold of my chin turned my face back and forth in the light with no shyness at all. I could not be as nonchalant as she was.

  “Do you always blush so easily?” she asked me with a laugh. “It’s rare to see a Buck man able to flush so red. I suppose your mother must have been fair-skinned. ”

  I could think of nothing to say to that, so I sat silently as she rummaged in her pack and came up with a small pair of shears. She worked quickly and deftly. “I used to cut my brothers’ hair,” she told me as she worked. “And my father’s hair and beard, after my mother died. You’ve a nice shape to your jaw, under all this brush. What have you been doing with it, just letting it grow out any way it pleased?”

  “I suppose,” I muttered nervously. The scissors were flashing away right under my nose. She paused and brushed briskly at my face. A substantial amount of curly black hair fell to the floor. “I don’t want my scar to be visible,” I warned her.

  “It won’t,” she said calmly. “But you will have lips and a mouth instead of a gap in your mustache. Tilt your chin up. There. Do you have a shaving blade?”

  “Only my knife,” I admitted nervously.

  “We’ll make do then,” she said comfortingly. She walked to the door, flung it open, and used the power of a minstrel’s lungs to bellow for the serving boy to bring her hot water. And tea. And bread and some rashers of bacon. When she came back into the room, she cocked her head and looked at me critically. “Let’s cut your hair, too,” she proposed. “Take it down. ”

  I moved too slowly to satisfy her. She stepped behind me, tugged off my kerchief, and freed my hair from the leather thong. Unbound, it fell to my shoulders. She took up her comb and curried my hair roughly forward. “Let’s see,” she muttered as I gritted my teeth to her rough combing.

  “What do you propose?” I asked her, but hanks of hair were already falling to the floor. Whatever she had decided was rapidly becoming a reality. She pulled hair forward over my face, then cut it off square above my eyebrows, tugged her comb through the rest of it a few times, then cut it off at jaw length. “Now,” she told me, “you look a bit more like Farrow merchant stock. Before you were obviously a Buckman. Your coloring is still Buck, but now your hair and clothes are Farrow. As long as you don’t talk, folk won’t be certain where you’re from. ” She considered a moment, then went to work again on the hair above my brow. After a moment she rummaged around and gave me a mirror. “The white will be a lot less noticeable now. ”

  She was right. She had trimmed out most of the white hair, and pulled forward black hair to fall over the stubble. My beard now hugged my face as well. I nodded a grudging approval. There was a knock at the door. “Leave it outside!” Starling called through the door. She waited a few moments, then fetched in her breakfast and the hot water. She washed, then suggested I put a good edge on my knife while she ate. I did so, wondering as I honed the blade if I felt flattered or irritated at her refashioning of me. She was beginning to remind me of Patience. She was still chewing as she came to take the knife from my hand. She swallowed, then spoke.

  “I’m going to give your beard a bit more shape. You’ll have to keep it up, though, I’m not going to shave you every day,” she warned me. “Now damp your face down well. ”

  I was substantially more nervous as she brandished the knife, especially as she worked near my throat. But when she was finished and I took up the looking glass, I was amazed at the changes she had wrought. She had defined my beard, confining it to my jaw and cheek. The square-cut hair hanging over my brow made my eyes look deeper. The scar on my cheek was still visible, but it followed the line of my mustache and was less noticeable. I ran my hand lightly over my beard, pleased with how much less of it there was. “It’s quite a change,” I told her.

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  “It’s a vast improvement,” she informed me. “I doubt that Creece or Dell would recognize you now. Let’s just be rid of this. ” She gathered up the hair cuttings and opened the window to fling them out onto the wind. Then she shut it and brushed off her hands.

  “Thank you,” I said awkwardly.

  “You’re welcome,” she told me. She glanced about the room, and breathed a small sigh. “I’m going to miss that bed,” she told me. She set to packing with a swift efficiency. She caught me watching her and grinned. “When you’re a minstrel who wanders, you learn to do this quickly and well.
” She tossed in the last items, then laced her pack shut. She swung it to one shoulder. “Wait for me at the bottom of the back stairs,” she commanded. “While I go settle my bill. ”

  I did as she bade me, but waited substantially longer in the cold and wind than I had expected. Eventually she emerged, rosy-cheeked and ready for the day. She stretched herself like a little cat. “This way,” she directed me.

  I had expected to shorten my stride to accommodate her, but found that we matched pace easily. She glanced across at me as we strode away from the merchants’ sector of town, and headed to the northern outskirts. “You look different today,” she informed me. “And it’s not just the haircut. You’ve made up your mind about something. ”

  “I have,” I agreed with her.

  “Good,” she said warmly, as she took my arm companionably. “I hope it’s to trust me. ”

  I glanced at her and said nothing. She laughed, but did not release my arm.

  The wooden walkways of the merchants’ section of Blue Lake soon disappeared and we walked in the street past houses that huddled against each other as if seeking shelter from the cold. The wind was a constant chill push against us as we strode along cobbled streets that gave way eventually to roads of packed earth that ran past small farmsteads. The road was rutted and muddy from the rains of the last few days. This day at least was fair, even if the blustery wind was cold. “Is there much farther to go?” I finally asked of her.

  “I’m not certain. I’m simply following directions. Watch for three stacked rocks at the side of the road. ”

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