Assassins quest, p.52
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       Assassins Quest, p.52

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “Thirty-three,” said the Fool without looking up.

  “Thirty-three what?” I asked.

  He glanced over at me in surprise. “Oh. You’re truly awake and talking?”

  “Of course. Thirty-three what?”

  “Thirty-three “I’m sorry’s. To various people, but the greatest number of them to me. Seventeen calls for Burrich. I lost count of your calls for Molly, I’m afraid. And a grand total of sixty-two “I’m coming, Verity’s. ”

  “I must be driving you crazy. I’m sorry. ”

  “Thirty-four. No. You’ve just been raving, rather monotonously. It’s the fever, I suppose. ”

  “I suppose. ”

  The Fool went back to reading. “I’m so tired of lying on my belly,” I ventured.

  “There’s always your back,” the Fool suggested to see me wince. Then, “Do you want me to help you shift to your side?”

  “No. That just hurts more. ”

  “Tell me if you change your mind. ” His eyes went back to the scroll.

  “Chade hasn’t been back to see me,” I observed.

  The Fool sighed and set aside his scroll. “No one has. The healer came in and berated us all for bothering you. They’re to leave you alone until she pulls the arrow out. That’s tomorrow. Besides, Chade and the Queen have had much to discuss. Discovering that both you and Verity are still alive has changed everything for them. ”

  “Another time, he would have included me. ” I paused, knowing I was wallowing in self-pity, but unable to stop myself. “I suppose they feel they cannot trust me anymore. Not that I blame them. Everyone hates me now. For the secrets I kept. For all the ways I failed them. ”

  “Oh, not everyone hates you,” the Fool chided gently. “Only me, really. ”

  My eyes darted to his face. His cynical smile reassured me. “Secrets,” he said, and sighed. “Someday I shall write a long philosophical treatise on the power of secrets, when kept or told. ”

  “Do you have any more brandy?”

  “Thirsty again? Do have some more willowbark tea. ” There was acid courtesy in his voice now, overladen with honey. “There’s plenty, you know. Buckets of it. All for you. ”

  “I think my fever is down a bit,” I offered humbly.

  He lifted a hand to my brow. “So it is. For now. But I do not think the healer would approve of you getting drunk again. ”

  “The healer is not here,” I pointed out.

  He arched a pale eyebrow at me. “Burrich would be so proud of you. ” But he rose gracefully and went to the oak cabinet. He stepped carefully around Nighteyes sprawled on the hearth in heat-soaked sleep. My eyes traveled to the patched window and then back to the Fool. I supposed some sort of agreement had been worked out between them. Nighteyes was so deeply asleep he was not even dreaming. His belly was full as well. His paws twitched when I quested toward him, so I withdrew. The Fool was putting the bottle and two cups on a tray. He seemed too subdued.

  “I am sorry, you know. ”

  “So you have told me. Thirty-five times. ”

  “But I am. I should have trusted you and told you about my daughter. ” Nothing, not a fever, not an arrow in my back would keep me from smiling when I said that phrase. My daughter. I tried to speak the simple truth. It embarrassed me that it seemed a new experience. “I’ve never seen her, you know. Only with the Skill, anyway. It’s not the same. And I want her to be mine. Mine and Molly’s. Not a child that belongs to a kingdom, with some vast responsibility to grow into. Just a little girl, picking flowers, making candles with her mother, doing . . . ” I floundered and finished, “Whatever it is that ordinary children are allowed to do. Chade would end that. The moment that anyone points to her and says, “There, she could be the Farseer heir,’ she’s at risk. She’d have to be guarded and taught to fear, to weigh every word and consider every action. Why should she? She isn’t truly a royal heir. Only a bastard’s bastard. ” I said those harsh words with difficulty, and vowed never to let anyone say them to her face. “Why should she be put in such danger? It would be one thing if she were born in a palace and had a hundred soldiers to guard her. But she has only Molly and Burrich. ”

  “Burrich is with them? If Chade chose Burrich, it is because he thinks him the equal of a hundred guards. But far more discreet,” the Fool observed. Did he know how that would wrench me? He brought the cups and the brandy and poured for me. I managed to pick up my own cup. “To a daughter. Yours and Molly’s,” he offered, and we drank. The brandy burned clean in my throat.

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  “So,” I managed. “Chade knew all along and sent Burrich to guard her. Even before I knew, they knew. ” Why did I feel they had stolen something from me?

  “I suspect so, but I am not certain. ” The Fool paused, as if wondering at the wisdom of telling me. Then I saw him discard the reserve. “I’ve been putting pieces together, counting back the time. I think Patience suspected. I think that’s why she started sending Molly to take care of Burrich when his leg was injured. He didn’t need that much care, and he knew it as well as Patience did. But Burrich is a good ear, mostly because he talks so little himself. Molly would need someone to talk to, perhaps someone that had once kept a bastard himself. That day we were all up in his room . . . you had sent me there, to see what he could do for my shoulder? The day you locked Regal out of Shrewd’s rooms to protect him . . . ” For a moment he seemed caught in that memory. Then he recovered. “When I came up the stairs to Burrich’s loft I heard them arguing. Well, Molly arguing, and Burrich being silent, which is his strongest way to argue. So, I eavesdropped,” he admitted frankly. “But I didn’t hear much. She was insisting he could get some particular herb for her. He wouldn’t. Finally, he promised her he would tell no one, and bade her to think well and do what she wished to do, not what she thought was wisest. Then they said no more, so I went in. She excused herself and departed. Later, you came and said she had left you. ” He paused. “Actually, looking back, I was as dull-witted as you, not to have worked it out just from that. ”

  “Thank you,” I told him dryly.

  “You’re welcome. Though I will admit we all had much on our minds that day. ”

  “I’d give anything to be able to go back in time and tell her that our child would be the most important thing in the world for me. More important than king or country. ”

  “Ah. So you would have left Buckkeep that day, to follow her and protect her. ” The Fool quirked an eyebrow at me.

  After a time, I said, “I couldn’t. ” The words choked me and I washed them down with brandy.

  “I know you couldn’t have. I understand. You see, no one can avoid fate. Not as long as we are trapped in time’s harness, anyway. And,” he said more softly, “no child can avoid the future that fate decrees. Not a fool, not a bastard. Not a bastard’s daughter. ”

  A shiver walked up my spine. Despite all my disbelief, I feared. “Are you saying that you know something of her future?”

  He sighed and nodded. Then he smiled and shook his head. “That is how it is, for me. I know something of a Farseer’s heir. If that heir is she, then doubtless, years from now, I shall read some ancient prophecy and say, Ah, yes, there it is, it was foretold how it would come to be. No one truly understands a prophecy until it comes true. It’s rather like a horseshoe. The smithy shows you a bit of iron stock and you say, it will never fit. But after it’s been through the fire and hammered and filed, there it is, fitting perfectly to your horse’s hoof as it would never fit any other. ”

  “It sounds as if you are saying prophets shape their prophecies to be true after the fact. ”

  He cocked his head. “And a good prophet, like a good smith, shows you that it fits perfectly. ” He took the empty glass from my hand. “You should be sleeping, you know. Tomorrow the healer is going to draw the arrowhead out. You will need your strength. ”

  I nodded, and suddenly
found my eyes were heavy.

  Chade gripped my wrists and pulled down firmly. My chest and cheek pressed against the hard wooden bench. The Fool straddled my legs and pinned my hips down with his leaning weight. Even Kettle had her hands on my bare shoulders, pressing me down on the unyielding bench. I felt like a hog trussed for slaughter. Starling stood by with lint bandaging and a basin of hot water. As Chade drew my hands down tight, I felt as if my whole body might split open at the rotten wound in my back. The healer squatted beside me. I caught a glimpse of the pincers she held. Black iron. Probably borrowed from the blacksmith’s shed.

  “Ready?” she asked.

  “No,” I grunted. They ignored me. It wasn’t me she was talking to. All morning she had worked on me as if I were a broken toy, prodding and pressing the foul fluids of infection from my back while I squirmed and muttered curses. All had ignored my imprecations, save the Fool, who had offered improvements on them. He was very much himself again. He had persuaded Nighteyes to go outside. I could sense the wolf prowling about the door. I had tried to convey to him what was to be done. I’d pulled enough quills from him in our time together that he had some idea of necessary pain. He still shared my dread.

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  “Go ahead,” Chade told the healer. His head was close to mine, his beard scratching my shaven cheek. “Steady my boy,” he breathed into my ear. The cold jaws of the pincers pressed against my inflamed flesh.

  “Don’t pant. Hold still,” the healer told me severely. I tried. It felt as if she were plunging them into my back seeking for a grip. After an eternity of probing, the healer said, “Hold him. ” I felt the jaws of the pincers clench. She pulled, ripping my spine up and out of my body.

  Or so it felt. I recall that first grating of metal head against bone, and all my resolutions not to scream were forgotten. I roared out my pain and my consciousness together. I tumbled again into that vague place that neither sleep nor wakefulness could reach. My feverish days had made it entirely too familiar to me.

  Skill river. I was in it and it was in me. Only a step away, it had always been only a step away. Surcease from pain and loneliness. Swift and sweet. I was tattering away in it, coming undone like a piece of knitting comes unraveled when the right thread is tugged. All my pain was coming undone as well. No. Verity forbade it firmly. Back you go, Fitz. As if he shooed a small child away from the fire. I went.

  Like a diver surfacing, I came back to the hard bench and voices over me. The light seemed dim. Someone exclaimed about blood and called for a cloth full of snow. I felt it pressed to my back while a sopping red rag was tossed to the Fool’s rug. The stain spread out on the wool and I flowed with it. I was floating and the room was full of black specks. The healer was busy by the fire. She drew another smith’s tool from the flames. It glowed and she turned to look at me. “Wait!” I cried in horror and half reared up off the bench, only to have Chade catch me by the shoulders.

  “It has to be done,” he told me harshly and held me in a grip of iron as the healer came near. At first I felt only pressure as she held a hot brand to my back. I smelled the burning of my own flesh and thought I did not care, until a spasm of pain jerked me more sharply than a hangman’s noose. The black rose up to drag me down. “Hung over water and burned!” I cried out in despair. A wolf whined.

  Rising. Coming up, nearer and nearer the light. The dive had been deep, the waters warm and full of dreams. I tasted the edge of consciousness, took a breath of wakefulness.

  Chade. “. . . but surely you could have told me, at least, that he was alive and had come to you. Eda and El in a knot, Fool, how often have I trusted you with my closest counsels?”

  “Almost as often as you have not,” the Fool replied tartly. “Fitz asked me to keep his presence here a secret. And it was, until that minstrel interfered. What would it have hurt if he had been left alone to rest completely before that arrow came out? You’ve listened to his ravings. Do they sound to you like a man at peace with himself?”

  Chade sighed. “Still. You could have told me. You know what it would have meant to me, to know he was alive. ”

  “You know what it would have meant to me, to know there was a Farseer heir,” the Fool retorted.

  “I told you as soon as I told the Queen!”

  “Yes, but how long had you known she existed? Since you sent Burrich to keep watch over Molly? You knew Molly carried his child when last you came to visit, yet you said nothing. ”

  Chade took a sharp breath, then cautioned. “Those are names I’d as soon you did not speak, not even here. Not even to the Queen have I given those names. You must understand, Fool. The more folk who know, the greater the risk to the child. I’d never have revealed her existence, save that the Queen’s child died and we believed Verity dead. ”

  “Save your hope of keeping secrets. A minstrel knows Molly’s name; minstrels keep no secrets. ” His dislike of Starling glittered in his voice. In a colder tone, he added, “So what did you really plan to do, Chade? Pass off Fitz’s daughter as Verity’s? Steal her from Molly and give her to the Queen, to raise as her own?” The Fool’s voice had gone deadly soft.

  “I . . . the times are hard and the need so great . . . but . . . not steal her, no. Burrich would understand, and I think he could make the girl understand. Besides. What can she offer the child? A penniless candlemaker, bereft of her trade . . . how can she care for her? The child deserves better. As does the mother, truly, and I would do my best to see she was provided for, also. But the baby cannot be left with her. Think, Fool. Once others knew the babe was of Farseer lineage she could only be safe on the throne, or in line for it. The woman listens to Burrich. He could make her see that. ”

  “I’m not so sure you could make Burrich see that. He gave one child up to royal duty. He may not feel it’s a wise choice a second time. ”

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  “Sometimes all the choices are poor ones, Fool, and still a man must choose. ”

  I think I made some small sound, for they both came to me quickly. “Boy?” Chade demanded anxiously. “Boy, are you awake?”

  I decided I was. I opened one eye a crack. Night. Light from the hearth and a few candles. Chade and the Fool and a bottle of brandy. And me. My back felt no better. My fever felt no less. Before I could even try to ask, the Fool held a cup to my lips. Damnable willowbark tea. I was so thirsty, I drank it all. The next cup he offered was meat broth, wonderfully salty. “I’m so thirsty,” I managed to say when I’d finished it. My mouth felt sticky with thirst, thick with it.

  “You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Chade explained needlessly.

  “Do you want more broth?” the Fool asked.

  I managed the tiniest nod. The Fool took the cup and went to the hearth. Chade leaned close and whispered, strangely urgent, “Fitz. Tell me one thing. Do you hate me, boy?”

  For a moment, I didn’t know. But the thought of hating Chade meant too great a loss to me. Too few folk in the world cared for me. I could not hate even one of them. I shook my head a tiny bit. “But,” I said slowly, carefully forming the thick words, “don’t take my child. ”

  “Do not fear,” he told me gently. His old hand smoothed my hair back from my face. “If Verity’s alive, there will be no need of it. For the time being, she is safest where she is. And if King Verity returns and assumes his throne, he and Kettricken will get children of their own. ”

  “Promise?” I begged.

  He met my eyes. The Fool brought the broth to me, and Chade stepped aside to make room for him. This cup was warmer. It was like life itself flowing back into me. When it was gone, I could speak more strongly. “Chade,” I said. He had walked over to the hearth and was staring into it. He turned back to me when I spoke.

  “You did not promise, “I reminded him.

  “No,” he agreed gravely. “I did not promise. Times are too uncertain for that promise. ”

bsp; For a long time I just looked at him. After a time, he gave his head a tiny shake and looked aside. He could not meet my eyes. But he offered me no lies. So it was up to me.

  “You can have me,” I told him quietly. “And I will do my best to bring Verity back, and do all I can to restore to him his throne. You can have my death, if that is what it takes. More than that, you can have my life, Chade. But not my child’s. Not my daughter’s. ”

  He met my eyes and nodded slowly.

  Recovery was a slow and painful business. It seemed to me that I should have relished each day in a soft bed, each mouthful of food, each moment of safe sleep. But it was not so. The frostbitten skin on my fingers and toes peeled and snagged on everything, and the new skin beneath was horribly tender. Every day the healer came to poke at me. She insisted that the wound on my back must be kept open and draining. I grew weary of the foul-smelling bandages she took away, and wearier still of her picking at my wound to see that it did not close too soon. She reminded me of a crow on a dying animal, and when I tactlessly told her so one day, she laughed at me.

  After a few days, I was moving about again, but never carelessly. Every step, every reach of a hand was a cautious thing. I learned to keep my elbows snug to my side to decrease the pull of muscles in my back, learned to walk as if I balanced a basket of eggs on my head. Even so, I wearied quickly, and too strenuous a stroll might bring the fever back at night. I went daily to the baths and though soaking in the hot water eased my body, I could not be there even a moment without recalling that here was where Regal sought to drown me, and there was where I had seen Burrich clubbed to the ground. Come to me, come to me, would begin the siren call in my head then, and my mind would soon be full of thoughts and wonderings about Verity. It was not conducive to a peaceful spirit. Instead I would find myself planning every detail of my next journey. I made a mental list of the equipment I must beg from Kettricken and debated long and hard over taking a riding animal. In the end I decided against it. There was no grazing for one; my capacity for unthinking cruelty was gone. I would not take a horse or pony simply to have it die. I knew, too, that soon I must ask leave to search the libraries to see if there might be found a precursor to Verity’s map. I dreaded seeking out Kettricken for she had not summoned me at all.

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