Assassins quest, p.51
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       Assassins Quest, p.51

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “You are not a toymaker. I know who you are. And I know who he truly is. ” The cold was flowing in the open door. It crept under my blankets, tightened my flesh and tugged at my pain. I wished they would shut it.

  “Ah, yes, you and Kettle know our great secret. I am the White Prophet, and he is Tom the shepherd. But today I am busy, prophesying puppets finished tomorrow, and he is asleep. Counting sheep, in his dreams. ”

  “That’s not what I mean. ” Starling lowered her voice, but it carried anyway. “He is FitzChivalry, son of Chivalry the Abdicated. And you are the Fool. ”

  “Once, perhaps, I was the Fool. It is common knowledge here in Jhaampe. But now I am the Toymaker. As I no longer use the other title, you may take it for yourself if you wish. As for Tom, I believe he takes the title Bed Bolster these days. ”

  “I will be seeing the Queen about this. ”

  “A wise decision. If you wish to become her Fool, she is certainly the one you must see. But for now, let me show you something else. No, step back, please, so you can see it all. Here it comes. ” I heard the slam and the latch. “The outside of my door,” the Fool announced gladly. “I painted it myself. Do you like it?”

  I heard a thud as of a muffled kick, followed by several more. The Fool came humming back to his worktable. He took up the wooden head of a doll and a paintbrush. He glanced over at me. “Go back to sleep. She won’t get in to see Kettricken any time soon. The Queen sees few people these days. And when she does, it’s not likely she’ll be believed. And that is the best we can do for now. So sleep while you may. And gather strength, for I fear you will need it. ”

  Daylight on white snow. Belly down in the snow amongst the trees, looking down on a clearing. Young humans at play, chasing one another, leaping and dragging one another down to roll over and over in the snow. They are not so different from cubs. Envious. We never had other cubs to play with while we were growing. It is like an itch, the desire to race down and join in. They would be frightened, we caution ourselves. Only watch. Their shrill yelps fill the air. Will our she-cub grow to be like these, we wonder? Braided hair flies behind as they race through the snow chasing one another.

  “Fitz. Wake up. I need to talk to you. ”

  Something in the Fool’s tone cut through both fog and pain. I opened my eyes, then squinted painfully. The room was dark, but he had brought a branch of candles to the floor by my bedside. He sat beside them, looking into my face earnestly. I could not read his face; it seemed that hope danced in his eyes and at the corners of his mouth, but also he seemed braced as if he brought me bad tidings. “Are you listening? Can you hear me?” he pressed.

  I managed a nod. Then, “Yes. ” My voice was so hoarse I hardly knew it. Instead of getting stronger for the healer to pull the arrow, I felt as if the wound were getting stronger. Each day the area of pain spread. It pushed always at the edge of my mind, making it hard to think.

  “I have been to dine with Chade and Kettricken. He had tidings for us. ” He tilted his head and watched my face carefully as he said, “Chade says there is a Farseer child in Buck. Just a babe yet, and a bastard. But of the same Farseer lineage as Verity and Chivalry. He swears it is so. ”

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  I closed my eyes.

  “Fitz. Fitz! Wake up and listen to me. He seeks to persuade Kettricken to claim the child. To either say that it is her rightful child by Verity, hidden by a false stillbirth to protect her from assassins. Or to say the child is Verity’s bastard, but that Queen Kettricken chooses to legitimize her and claim her as heir. ”

  I could not move. I could not breathe. My daughter, I knew. Kept safe and hidden, guarded by Burrich. To be sacrificed to the throne. Taken from Molly, and given to the Queen. My little girl, whose name I didn’t even know. Taken to be a princess and in time a queen. Put beyond my reach forever.

  “Fitz!” The Fool put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it gently. I knew he longed to shake me. I opened my eyes.

  He peered into my face. “Have you nothing to say to me?” he asked carefully.

  “May I have some water?”

  While he got it for me, I composed myself. He helped me drink. By the time he took the cup, I had decided what question would be most convincing. “What did Kettricken say to the news that Verity had fathered a bastard? It could scarcely bring her joy. ”

  The uncertainty I had hoped for spread across the Fool’s face. “The child was born at the end of harvest. Too late for Verity to have sired it before he left on his quest. Kettricken grasped it faster than I did. ” He spoke almost gently. “You must be the father. When Kettricken asked Chade directly, he said as much. ” He cocked his head to study me. “You did not know?”

  I shook my head slowly. What was honor to one such as I? Bastard and assassin, what claim did I have to nobility of soul? I spoke the lie I would always despise. “I could not have fathered a child born at harvest. Molly had turned me out of her bed months before she left Buck. ” I tried to keep my voice steady as I spoke. “If the mother is Molly, and she claims the child is mine, she lies. ” I strove to be sincere as I added, “I am sorry, Fool. I have fathered no Farseer heir for you, nor do I intend to. ” It was no effort to let my voice choke and tears mist my eyes. “Strange. ” I shook my head against the pillow. “That such a thing could bring me such pain. That she could seek to pass the babe off as mine. ” I closed my eyes.

  The Fool spoke gently. “As I understand it, she has made no claims for the child. As of yet, I believe she knows nothing of Chade’s plan. ”

  “I suppose I should see both Chade and Kettricken. To tell them I am alive and reveal the truth to them. But when I am stronger. Just now, Fool, I would be alone,” I begged him. I wanted to see neither sympathy nor puzzlement on his face. I prayed he would believe my lie even as I despised myself for the foul thing I had said of Molly. So I kept my eyes closed, and he took his candles and went away.

  I lay for a time in the dark, hating myself. It was better this way, I told myself. If ever I returned to her, I could make all right. And if I did not, at least they would not take our child from her. I told myself over and over again I had done the wise thing. But I did not feel wise. I felt traitorous.

  I dreamed a dream at once vivid and stultifying. I chipped black stone. That was the entire dream, but it was endless in its monotony. I was using my dagger as a chisel and a rock as a hammer. My fingers were scabbed and swollen from the many times my grip had slipped and I’d struck them instead of the dagger hilt. But it didn’t stop me. I chipped black stone. And waited for someone to come and help me.

  I awoke one evening to find Kettle sitting by my bed. She looked even older than I recalled. Hazy winter daylight seeped through a parchment window to touch her face. I studied her for a time before she realized I was awake. When she did, she shook her head at me. “I should have guessed, from all your strangeness. You were bound for the White Prophet yourself. ” She leaned closer and spoke in a whisper. “He will not allow Starling in to see you. He says you are too weak for so lively a visitor. And that you wish no one to know you are here, just yet. But I’ll take word of you to her, shall I?”

  I closed my eyes.

  A time of bright morning and a knock at the door. I could not sleep, nor could I stay awake for the fever that racked me. I had drunk willowbark tea until my belly was sloshing. Still my head pounded, and I was always shivering or sweating. The knock came again, louder, and Kettle set down the cup she had been plaguing me with. The Fool was at his worktable. He put aside his carving tool, but Kettle called “I’ll get it!” and opened the door, even as he was saying, “No, let me. ”

  Starling pushed in, so abruptly that Kettle exclaimed in surprise. Starling came past her, into the room, shaking snow from her cap and cloak. She shot the Fool a look of triumph. The Fool merely nodded cordially at her as if he had been expecting her. He turned back to his carving without a word. The brig
ht sparks of anger in her eyes grew hotter, and I sensed her satisfaction in something. She shut the door loudly behind her and came into the room like the north wind herself. She dropped to sit cross-legged on the floor beside my bed. “So, Fitz. I’m so glad to finally see you again. Kettle told me you were hurt. I’d have come to see you before, but I was turned away at the door. How are you today?”

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  I tried to focus my mind. I wished she would move more slowly and speak more softly. “It’s too cold in here,” I complained petulantly. “And I’ve lost my earring. ” I had only discovered the loss that morning. It fretted me. I could not recall why it was so important, but my mind would not let go of it either. The very thought made my headache worse.

  She stripped off her mittens. One hand was bandaged still. She touched my forehead with the other. Her hand was blessedly cold. Odd that cold could feel so good. “He’s burning up!” she accused the Fool. “Haven’t you the sense to give him willowbark tea?”

  The Fool shaved off another curl of wood. “There’s a pot of it there by your knee, if you haven’t overset it. If you can get him to drink any more of it, you’re a better man than I. ” Another curl of wood.

  “That would not be hard,” Starling said in an ugly little voice. Then, in a kinder tone, to me, “Your earring isn’t lost. See, I have it right here. ” She took it from the pouch at her belt. One small part of me worked well enough to notice that she was warmly dressed in the Mountain style now. Her hands were cold and a bit rough as she put the earring back in my ear for me. I found a question.

  “Why did you have it?”

  “I asked Kettle to bring it to me,” she told me bluntly. “When he would not let me in to see you. I had to have a token, something to prove to Kettricken that all I told her was true. I have been to her and spoken to her and her counselor, this very day. ”

  The Queen’s name broke through my wandering thoughts and gave me a moment of focus. “Kettricken! What have you done?” I cried in dismay. “What have you told her?”

  Starling looked startled. “Why, all she must know so that she will help you on your quest. That you are truly alive. That Verity is not dead, and that you will seek him. That word must be sent to Molly that you are alive and well, so that she shall not lose heart but will keep your child safe until you return. That . . . ”

  “I trusted you!” I cried out. “I trusted you with my secrets and you have betrayed me. What a fool I’ve been!” I cried out in despair. All, all was lost.

  “No, I am the Fool. ” He broke into our conversation. He walked slowly across the room and stood looking down on me. “The more so that I had believed you trusted me, it seems,” he went on, and I had never seen him so pale. “Your child,” he said to himself. “A true child of Farseer lineage. ” His yellow eyes flickered like a dying fire as they darted from Starling to me. “You know what such tidings mean to me. Why? Why lie to me?”

  I did not know what was worse, the hurt in the Fool’s eyes, or the triumph in the glance Starling gave him.

  “I had to lie, to keep her mine! The child is mine, not a Farseer heir!” I cried out desperately. “Mine and Molly’s. A child to grow and love, not a tool for a kingmaker. And Molly must not hear I am alive from any save me! Starling, how could you have done this to me? Why was I such an idiot, why did I talk of such things at all to anyone?”

  Now Starling looked as injured as the Fool. She stood up stiffly and her voice was brittle. “I but sought to help you. To help you do what you must do. ” Behind Starling, the wind gusted the door open. “That woman has a right to know her husband is alive. ”

  “To which woman do you refer?” asked another icy voice. To my consternation, Kettricken swept into the room with Chade at her heels. She regarded me with a terrible face. Grief had ravaged her, had carved deep lines beside her mouth and eaten the flesh from her cheeks. Now anger raged in her eyes as well. The blast of cold wind that came with them cooled me for an instant. Then the door was closed and my eyes moved from face to familiar face. The small room seemed crowded with staring faces, with cold eyes looking at me. I blinked. There were so many of them and so close, and all stared at me. No one smiled. No welcome, no joy. Only the savage emotions that I had wakened with all the changes I had wrought. Thus was the Catalyst greeted. No one wore any expression I’d hoped to see.

  None save Chade. He crossed the room to me in long strides, stripping off his riding gloves as he came. When he threw back the hood of his winter cloak, I saw that his white hair was bound back in a warrior’s tail. He wore a band of leather across his brow, and centered on his forehead was a medallion of silver. A buck with antlers lowered to charge. The sigil Verity had given to me. Starling moved hastily from his path. He gave her not a glance as he folded easily to sit on the floor by my bed. He took my hand in his, narrowed his eyes at the sight of the frostbite. He held it softly. “Oh, my boy, my boy, I believed you were dead. When Burrich sent me word he had found your body, I thought my heart would break. The words we had when last we parted . . . but here you are, alive if not well. ”

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  He bent and kissed me. The hand he set to my cheek was callused now, the pocks scarcely visible on the weathered flesh. I looked up in his eyes and saw welcome and joy. Tears clouded my own as I had to demand, “Would you truly take my daughter for the throne? Another bastard for the Farseer line . . . Would you have let her be used as we have been used?”

  Something grew still in his face. The set of his mouth hardened into resolve. “I will do whatever I have to do to see a truehearted Farseer on the Six Duchies throne again. As I am sworn to do. As you are sworn also. ” His eyes met mine.

  I looked at him in dismay. He loved me. Worse, he believed in me. He believed that I had in me that strength and devotion to duty that had been the backbone of his life. Thus he could inflict on me things harder and colder than Regal’s hatred of me could imagine. His belief in me was such that he would not hesitate to plunge me into any battle, that he would expect any sacrifice of me. A dry sob suddenly racked me and tore at the arrow in my back. “There is no end!” I cried out. “That duty will hound me into death. Better I were dead! Let me be dead then!” I snatched my hand away from Chade, heedless of how much that motion hurt. “Leave me!”

  Chade didn’t even flinch. “He is burning with fever,” he said accusingly to the Fool. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. You should have given him willowbark tea. ”

  A terrible smile crooked the Fool’s lips. Before he could reply, there was a sharp shredding sound. A gray head was forced through the greased hide window, flashing a muzzle full of white teeth. The rest of the wolf soon followed, oversetting a shelf of potted herbs onto some scrolls set out below them. Nighteyes sprang, nails skittering on the wood floor, and slid to a halt between me and the hastily standing Chade. He snarled all round. I will kill them all for you, if you say so. I dropped my head down to my pillows. My clean, wild wolf. This was what I had made of him. Was it any better than what Chade had made of me?

  I looked around them again. Chade was standing, his face very still. Every single face held some shock, some sadness, some disappointment that I was responsible for. Despair and fever shook me. “I’m sorry,” I said weakly. “I have never been what you thought I was,” I confessed. “Never. ”

  Silence filled up the room. The fire crackled briefly.

  I dropped my face to my pillow and closed my eyes. I spoke the words I was compelled to say. “But I shall go and find Verity. Somehow, I will bring him back to you. Not because I am what you believe me to be,” I added, slowly lifting my head. I saw hope kindle in Chade’s face. “But because I have no choice. I have never had any choices. ”

  “You do believe Verity is alive!” The hope in Kettricken’s voice was savagely hungry. She swept toward me like an ocean storm.

  I nodded my head. Then, “Yes,” I managed. “Yes,
I believe he lives. I have felt him strongly with me. ” Her face was so close, huge in my sight. I blinked my eyes, and then could not focus them.

  “Why has not he returned then? Is he lost? Injured? Does he have no care for those he left behind?” Her questions rattled against me like flung stones, one after another.

  “I think,” I began, and then could not. Could not think, could not speak. I closed my eyes. I listened to a long silence. Nighteyes whined, then growled deep in his throat.

  “Perhaps we should all leave for a time,” Starling ventured unevenly. “Fitz is not up to this just now. ”

  “You may leave,” the Fool told her grandly. “Unfortunately I still live here. ”

  Going hunting. It is time to go hunting. I look to where we came in, but the Scentless One has blocked that way, covering it over with another piece of deerskin. Door, part of us knows that is the door and we go to it, to whine softly and prod at it with our nose. It rattles against its catch like a trap about to spring shut. The Scentless One comes, stepping lightly, warily. He stretches his body past me, to put a pale paw on the door and open it for me. I slip out, back into a cool night world. It feels good to stretch my muscles again, and I flee the pain and the stuffy hut and the body that does not work to this wild sanctuary of flesh and fur. The night swallows us and we hunt.

  It was another night, another time, before, after, I did not know, my days had come unlinked from one another. Someone lifted a warm compress from my brow and replaced it with a cooler one. “I’m sorry, Fool,” I said.

  “Thirty-two,” said a voice wearily. Then, “Drink,” it added more gently. Cool hands raised my face. A cup lapped liquid against my mouth. I tried to drink. Willowbark tea. I turned my face away in disgust. The Fool wiped my mouth and sat down on the floor beside my bed. He leaned companionably close against it. He held his scroll up to the lamplight and went on reading. It was deep night. I closed my eyes and tried to find sleep again. All I could find were things I’d done wrong, trusts I’d betrayed.

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  “I’m so sorry,” I said.

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