Assassins quest, p.5
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       Assassins Quest, p.5

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  He wanted me to go back, I admitted after a time. I tried to frame it in a way that Nighteyes would understand. He wanted me to . . . be not a wolf anymore.

  A sudden chill went up my back. In explaining to Nighteyes, I had brought myself face-to-face with the truth. The choice was simple. Be a wolf, with no past, no future, only today. Or a man, twisted by his past, whose heart pumped fear with his blood. I could walk on two legs, and know shame and cowering as a way of life. Or run on four, and forget until even Molly was just a pleasant scent I recalled. I sat still beneath the brambles, my hand resting lightly on Nighteyes’ back, my eyes staring into a place only I could see. Slowly the light changed and evening deepened to dusk. My decision grew as slowly and inevitably as the creeping dark. My heart cried out against it, but the alternatives were unbearable. I steeled my will to it.

  It was dark when I went back. I crept home with my tail between my legs. It was strange to come back to the cabin as a wolf again, to smell the rising wood smoke as a man’s thing, and to blink at the fire’s glow through the shutters. Reluctantly I peeled my mind free of Nighteyes’.

  Would you not rather hunt with me?

  I would much rather hunt with you. But I cannot this night.

  Why?

  I shook my head. The edge of decision was so thin and new, I dared not test it by speaking. I stopped at the edge of the woods to brush the leaves and dirt from my clothes and to smooth back my hair and retie it in a tail. I hoped my face was not dirty. I squared my shoulders and forced myself to walk back to the cabin, to open the door and enter and look at them. I felt horribly vulnerable. They’d been sharing information about me. Between the two of them they knew almost all of my secrets. My tattered dignity now dangled in shreds. How could I stand before them and expect to be treated as a man? Yet I could not fault them for it. They had been trying to save me. From myself, it was true, but save me all the same. Not their fault that what they had saved was scarcely worth having.

  They were at table when I entered. If I had run off like this a few weeks ago, Burrich would have leaped up, to shake me and cuff me when I returned. I knew we were past that sort of thing now but the memory gave me a wariness I could not completely disguise. However, his face showed only relief, while Chade looked at me with shame and concern.

  “I did not mean to press you that hard,” he said earnestly, before I could speak.

  “You didn’t,” I said quietly. “You but put your finger on the spot where I had been pressing myself the most. Sometimes a man doesn’t know how badly he’s hurt until someone else probes the wound. ”

  I drew up my chair. After weeks of simple food to see cheese and honey and elderberry wine all set out on the table at once was almost shocking. There was a loaf of bread as well to supplement the trout Burrich had caught. For a time we just ate, without talk other than table requests. It seemed to ease the strangeness. But the moment the meal was finished and cleared away, the tension came back.

  “I understand your question now,” Burrich said abruptly. Chade and I both looked at him in surprise. “A few days ago, when you asked what we would do next. Understand that I had given Verity up as lost. Kettricken carried his heir, but she was safe now in the Mountains. There was no more I could do for her. If I intervened in any way, I might betray her to others. Best to let her stay hidden, safe with her father’s people. By the time her child came to an age to reach for his throne . . . well, if I was not in my grave by then, I supposed I would do what I could. For now, I saw my service to my king as a thing of the past. So when you asked me I saw only the need to take care of ourselves. ”

  “And now?” I asked quietly.

  “If Verity lives still, then a pretender has claimed his throne. I am sworn to come to my king’s aid. As is Chade. As are you. ” They were both looking at me very hard.

  Run away again.

  I can’t.

  Burrich flinched as if I had poked him with a pin. I wondered, if I moved for the door, would he fling himself upon me to stop me? But he did not speak or move, just waited.

  “Not I. That Fitz died,” I said bluntly.

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  Burrich looked as if I had struck him. But Chade asked quietly, “Then why does he still wear King Shrewd’s pin?”

  I reached up and drew it out of my collar. Here, I had intended to say, here, you take it and all that goes with it. I’m done with it. I haven’t the spine for it. Instead I sat and looked at it.

  “Elderberry wine?” Chade offered, but not to me.

  “It’s cool tonight. I’ll make tea,” Burrich countered.

  Chade nodded. Still I sat, holding the red-and-silver pin in my hand. I remembered my king’s hands as he’d pushed the pin through the folds of a boy’s shirt. “There,” he had said. “Now you are mine. ” But he was dead now. Did that free me from my promise? And the last thing he had said to me? “What have I made of you?” I pushed that question aside once more. More important, what was I now? Was I now what Regal had made of me? Or could I escape that?

  “Regal told me,” I said consideringly. “That I had but to scratch myself to find Nameless the dog-boy. ” I looked up and forced myself to meet Burrich’s eyes. “It might be nice to be him. ”

  “Would it?” Burrich asked. “There was a time when you did not think so. Who are you, Fitz, if you are not the King’s Man? What are you? Where would you go?”

  Where would I go, were I free? To Molly, cried my heart. I shook my head, thrusting aside the idea before it could sear me. No. Even before I had lost my life, I had lost her. I considered my empty, bitter freedom. There was only one place I could go, really. I set my will, looked up, and met Burrich’s eyes with a firm gaze. “I’m going away. Anywhere. To the Chalced States, to Bingtown. I’m good with animals, I’m a decent scribe, too. I could make a living. ”

  “No doubt of it. But a living is not a life,” Burrich pointed out.

  “Well, what is?” I demanded, suddenly and truly angry. Why did they have to make this so hard? Words and thoughts suddenly gouted from me like poison from a festering wound. “You’d have me devote myself to my king and sacrifice all else to it, as you did. Give up the woman I love to follow a king like a dog at his heels, as you did. And when that king abandoned you? You swallowed it, you raised his bastard for him. Then they took it all away from you, stable, horses, dogs, men to command. They left you nothing, not even a roof over your head, those kings you were sworn to. So what did you do? With nothing else left to you, you hung on to me, dragged the bastard out of a coffin and forced him back to life. A life I hate, a life I don’t want!” I glared at him accusingly.

  He stared at me, bereft of words. I wanted to stop, but something drove me on. The anger felt good, like a cleansing fire. I clenched my hands into fists as I demanded, “Why are you always there? Why do you always stand me up again, for them to knock down? For what? To make me owe you something? To give you a claim on my life because you don’t have the spine to have a life of your own? All you want to do is make me just like you, a man with no life of my own, a man who gives it all up for my king. Can’t you see there’s more to being alive than giving it all up for someone else?”

  I met his eyes and then looked away from the pained astonishment I saw there. “No,” I said dully after a breath. “You don’t see, you can’t know. You can’t even imagine what you’ve taken away from me. I should be dead, but you wouldn’t let me die. All with the best of intentions, always believing you were doing what was right, no matter how it hurt me. But who gave you that right over me? Who decreed you could do this to me?”

  There was no sound but my own voice in the room. Chade was frozen, and the look on Burrich’s face only made me angrier. I saw him gather himself up. He reached for his pride and dignity as he said quietly, “Your father gave me that task, Fitz. I did my best by you, boy. The last thing my prince told me, Chivalry said to me, “Raise him well. ’ A
nd I . . . ”

  “Gave up the next decade of your life to raising someone else’s bastard,” I cut in with savage sarcasm. “Took care of me, because it was the only thing you really knew how to do. All your life, Burrich, you’ve been looking after someone else, putting someone else first, sacrificing any kind of a normal life for someone else’s benefit. Loyal as a hound. Is that a life? Haven’t you ever thought of being your own man, and making your own decisions? Or is a fear of that what pushes you down the neck of a bottle?” My voice had risen to a shout. When I ran out of words, I stared at him, my chest rising and falling as I panted out my fury.

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  As an angry boy, I’d often promised myself that someday he would pay for every cuff he had given me, for every stall I’d had to muck out when I thought I was too tired to stand. With those words, I kept that sulky little promise tenfold. His eyes were wide and he was speechless with pain. I saw his chest heave once, as if to catch a breath knocked out of him. The shock in his eyes was the same as if I had suddenly plunged a knife into him.

  I stared at him. I wasn’t sure where those words had come from, but it was too late to call them back. Saying “I’m sorry” would not un-utter them, would not change them in the least. I suddenly hoped he would hit me, that he would give both of us at least that much.

  He stood unevenly, the chair legs scraping back on the wooden floor. The chair itself teetered over and fell with a crash as he walked away from it. Burrich, who walked so steady when full of brandy, wove like a drunk as he made it to the door and went out into the night. I just sat, feeling something inside me go very still. I hoped it was my heart.

  For a moment all was silence. A long moment. Then Chade sighed. “Why?” he asked quietly after a time.

  “I don’t know. ” I lied so well. Chade himself had taught me. I looked into the fire. For a moment, I almost tried to explain it to him. I decided I could not. I found myself talking all around it. “Maybe I needed to get free of him. Of all he’d done for me, even when I didn’t want him to do it. He has to stop doing things I can never pay him back for. Things no man should do for another, sacrifices no man should make for another man. I don’t want to owe him any more. I don’t want to owe anyone anything. ”

  When Chade spoke, it was matter-of-factly. His long-fingered hands rested on his thighs, quietly, almost relaxed. But his green eyes had gone the color of copper ore, and his anger lived in them. “Ever since you came back from the Mountain Kingdom, it’s been as if you were spoiling for a fight. With anyone. When you were a boy and you were sullen or sulky, I could put it down to your being a boy, with a boy’s judgment and frustrations. But you came back with an . . . anger. Like a challenge to the world at large, to kill you if it could. It wasn’t just that you threw yourself in Regal’s path: whatever was most dangerous to you, you plunged yourself into. Burrich wasn’t the only one to see it. Look back over the last year: every time I turned about, here was Fitz, railing at the world, in the middle of a fistfight, in the midst of a battle, wrapped up in bandaging, drunk as a fisherman, or limp as a string and mewling for elfbark. When were you calm and thoughtful, when were you merry with your friends, when were you ever simply at peace? If you weren’t challenging your enemies, you were driving away your friends. What happened between you and the Fool? Where is Molly now? You’ve just sent Burrich packing. Who’s next?”

  “You, I suppose. ” The words came out of me any way, inevitably. I did not want to speak them but I could not hold them back. It was time.

  “You’ve moved a fair way toward that already, with the way you spoke to Burrich. ”

  “I know that,” I said bluntly. I met his eyes. “For a long time now, nothing I’ve done has pleased you. Or Burrich. Or anyone. I can’t seem to make a good decision lately. ”

  “I’d concur with that,” Chade agreed relentlessly.

  And it was back, the ember of my anger billowing into flame. “Perhaps because I’ve never been given the chance to make my own decisions. Perhaps because I’ve been everyone’s “boy’ too long. Burrich’s stableboy, your apprentice assassin, Verity’s pet, Patience’s page. When did I get to be mine, for me?” I asked the question fiercely.

  “When did you not?” Chade demanded just as heatedly. “That’s all you’ve done since you came back from the Mountains. You went to Verity to say you’d had enough of being an assassin just when quiet work was needed. Patience tried to warn you clear of Molly, but you had your way there as well. It made her a target. You pulled Patience into plots that exposed her to danger. You bonded to the wolf, despite all Burrich said to you. You questioned my every decision about King Shrewd’s health. And your next-to-last stupid act at Buckkeep was to volunteer to be part of an uprising against the crown. You brought us as close to a civil war as we’ve been in a hundred years. ”

  “And my last stupid act?” I asked with bitter curiosity.

  “Killing Justin and Serene. ” He spoke a flat accusation.

  “They’d just drained my king, Chade,” I pointed out icily. “Killed him in my arms as it were. What was I to do?”

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  He stood up and somehow managed to tower over me as he had used to. “With all your years of training from me, all my schooling in quiet work, you went racing about in the keep with a drawn knife, cutting the throat of one, and stabbing the other to death in the Great Hall before all assembled nobles. . . . My fine apprentice assassin! That was the only way you could think of to accomplish it?”

  “I was angry!” I roared at him.

  “Exactly!” he roared back. “You were angry. So you destroyed our power base at Buckkeep! You had the confidence of the Coastal Dukes, and you chose to show yourself to them as a madman! Shattered their last bit of faith in the Farseer line. ”

  “A few moments ago, you rebuked me for having the confidence of those dukes. ”

  “No. I rebuked you for putting yourself before them. You should never have let them offer you the rule of Buckkeep. Had you been doing your tasks properly, such a thought would never have occurred to them. Over and over and over again, you forget your place. You are not a prince, you are an assassin. You are not the player, you are the game-piece. And when you make your own moves, you set every other strategy awry and endanger every piece on the board!”

  Not being able to think of a reply is not the same thing as accepting another’s words. I glowered at him. He did not back down but simply continued to stand, looking down at me. Under the scrutiny of Chade’s green stare the strength of my anger deserted me abruptly, leaving only bitterness. My secret undercurrent of fear welled once more to the surface. My resolve bled from me. I couldn’t do this. I did not have the strength to defy them both. After a time, I heard myself saying sullenly, “All right. Very well. You and Burrich are right, as always. I promise I shall no longer think, I shall simply obey. What do you want me to do?”

  “No. ” Succinct.

  “No what?”

  He shook his head slowly. “What has come most clear to me tonight is that I must not base anything on you. You’ll get no assignment from me, nor will you be privy to my plans any longer. Those days are over. ” I could not grasp the finality in his voice. He turned aside from me, his eyes going afar. When he spoke again, it was not as my master, but as Chade. He looked at the wall as he spoke. “I love you, boy. I don’t withdraw that from you. But you’re dangerous. And what we must attempt is dangerous enough without you going berserk in the middle of it. ”

  “What do you attempt?” I asked, despite myself.

  His eyes met mine as he slowly shook his head. In the keeping of that secret, he sundered our ties. I felt suddenly adrift. I watched in a daze as he took up his pack and cloak.

  “It’s dark out,” I pointed out. “And Buckkeep is a far, rough walk, even in daylight. At least stay the night, Chade. ”

  “I can’t. You’d but pick at this qua
rrel like a scab until you got it bleeding afresh. Enough hard words have already been said. Best I leave now. ”

  And he did.

  I sat and watched the fire burn low alone. I had gone too far with both of them, much farther than I had ever intended. I had wanted to part ways with them; instead I’d poisoned every memory of me they’d ever had. It was done. There’d be no mending this. I got up and began to gather my things. It took a very short time. I knotted them into a bundle made with my winter cloak. I wondered if I acted out of childish pique or sudden decisiveness. I wondered if there was a difference. I sat for a time before the hearth, clutching my bundle. I wanted Burrich to come back, so he would see I was sorry, would know I was sorry as I left. I forced myself to look carefully at that. Then I undid my bundle and put my blanket before the hearth and stretched out on it. Ever since Burrich had dragged me back from death, he had slept between me and the door. Perhaps it had been to keep me in. Some nights it had felt as if he were all that stood between me and the dark. Now he was not there. Despite the walls of the hut, I felt I curled alone on the bare, wild face of the world.

  You always have me.

  I know. And you have me. I tried, but could not put any real feeling in the words. I had poured out every emotion in me, and now I was empty. And so tired. With so much still to do.

  The gray one has words with Heart of the Pack. Shall I listen?

  No. Their words belong to them. I felt jealous that they were together while I was alone. Yet I also took comfort in it. Perhaps Burrich could talk Chade into coming back until morning. Perhaps Chade could leech some of the poison I’d sprayed at Burrich. I stared into the fire. I did not think highly of myself.

  There is a dead spot in the night, that coldest, blackest time when the world has forgotten evening and dawn is not yet a promise. A time when it is far too early to arise, but so late that going to bed makes small sense. That was when Burrich came in. I was not asleep, but I did not stir. He was not fooled.

 
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