Assassins quest, p.53
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       Assassins Quest, p.53
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Every day I reminded myself of these things, and every day I put it off one more day. As of yet, I still could not walk the length of Jhaampe without stopping to rest. Conscientiously, I began to force myself to eat more and to push the limits of my strength. Often the Fool joined me on my strengthening walks. I knew he hated the cold, but I welcomed his silent companionship too much to suggest he stay warm within. He took me once to see Sooty, and that placid beast welcomed me with such pleasure that I returned every day thereafter. Her belly was swelling with Ruddy’s foal; she’d drop early in spring. She seemed healthy enough, but I fretted over her age. I took an amazing amount of comfort from the old mare’s gentle presence. It pulled at my injury to lift my arms to groom her, but I did anyway, and Ruddy as well. The spirited young horse needed more handling than he was getting. I did my best with him, and missed Burrich every moment of it.

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  The wolf came and went as he pleased. He joined the Fool and me on our walks, and strolled into the hut afterward at our heels. It was almost distressing to see how swiftly he adapted. The Fool muttered about the claw marks on his door and the shed fur on his rugs, but they liked each other well enough. A wolf puppet began to emerge in sections from chunks of wood on the Fool’s worktable. Nighteyes developed a taste for a certain seedcake that was also the Fool’s favorite. The wolf would stare fixedly at him whenever the Fool was eating it, drooling great pools of saliva onto the floor until the Fool would relent and give him a share. I scolded them both about what sweets could do to his teeth and coat and was ignored by both of them. I suppose I felt a bit of jealousy at how quickly he came to trust the Fool, until Nighteyes asked pointedly one day, Why should not I trust whom you trust? I had no answer to that.

  “So. When did you become a toymaker?” I asked the Fool idly one day. I was leaning on his table, watching his fingers thread the limbs and torso of a jumping jack onto his stick framework. The wolf was sprawled out under the table, deeply asleep.

  He shrugged one shoulder. “It became obvious once I was here that King Eyod’s court was no place for a Fool. ” He gave a short sigh. “Nor did I truly have the desire to be the Fool for anyone save King Shrewd. That being so, I cast about for some other means to earn my bread. One evening, quite drunk, I asked myself what I knew best. “Why, being a puppet,’ I replied to myself. Jerked about by the strings of fate, and then tossed aside to crumple in a heap. That being so, I decided that I would no longer dance to the string’s pull, but would pull the strings. The next day I put my resolution to the test. I soon discovered a liking for it. The simple toys I grew up with and the ones that I saw in Buck seem wondrous strange to Mountain children. I found I needed to have few dealings with the adults, which suited me well. Children here learn to hunt and fish and weave and harvest at a very early age, and whatever they garner is their own. So I trade for what I need. Children, I have found, are much more swift to accept the unusual. They admit their curiosity, you see, rather than disdaining the object that arouses it. ” His pale fingers tied a careful knot. Then he picked his creation up and set it to dancing for me.

  I watched its gay prancing with a retroactive desire to have possessed such a thing of brightly painted wood and finely sanded edges. “I want my daughter to have things such as that,” I heard myself say aloud. “Well-made toys and soft bright shirts, pretty hair ribbons and dolls to clutch. ”

  “She will,” he promised me gravely. “She will. ”

  The slow days passed. My hands began to look normal again and even to have some callus on them again. The healer said I might go with no bandaging on my back. I began to feel restless but knew I did not yet have the strength to leave. My disquiet in turn agitated the Fool. I did not realize how much I paced until the evening he rose from his chair and shoved his table over into my path to divert me from my course. We both laughed, but it did not dispel the underlying tension. I began to believe I destroyed peace wherever I went.

  Kettle visited often and drove me to distraction with her knowledge of the scrolls concerning the White Prophet. Too often they mentioned a Catalyst. Sometimes the Fool was drawn into her discussions. More often he simply made noncommittal noises as she tried to explain it all to me. I almost missed her dour taciturnity. I confess, too, that the more she talked, the more I wondered how a woman of Buck had ever chanced to wander so far from her homeland, to become a devotee of a distant teaching that would someday lead her back to her homeland. But the old Kettle showed through when she deflected my slyly posed questions.

  Starling came, though not as often as Kettle, and usually when the Fool was out and about on errands. It seemed that they could not be in the same room without striking sparks from one another. As soon as I was able to move about at all, she began to persuade me to take outside walks with her, probably to avoid the Fool. I suppose they did me good, but I took no enjoyment in them. I had had my fill of winter cold and usually her conversation made me feel both restless and spurred. Her talk was often of the war back in Buck, snippets of news overheard from Chade and Kettricken, for she was often with them. She played for them in the evenings, as best she could with her damaged hand and a borrowed harp. She lived in the main hall of the royal residence. This taste of a court life seemed to agree with her. She was frequently enthused and animated. The bright clothes of the Mountain folk set off her dark hair and eyes, while the cold brought color to her face. She seemed to have recovered from all misfortune, to be once more filled with life. Even her hand was healing well, and Chade had helped her barter for wood to make a new harp. It shamed me that her optimism only made me feel older and weaker and more wearied. An hour or two with her wore me out as if I had been exercising a headstrong filly. I felt a constant pressure from her to agree with her. Often I could not.

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  “He makes me nervous,” she told me once, in one of her frequent diatribes against the Fool. “It’s not his color; it’s his manner. He never says a kind or simple word to anyone, not even to the children who come to trade for his toys. Have you marked how he teases and mocks them?”

  “He likes them, and they like him,” I said wearily. “He does not tease them to be cruel. He teases them as he teases everyone. The children enjoy it. No child wishes to be spoken down to. ” The brief walk had tired me more than I wished to admit to her. And it was tedious constantly to defend him to her.

  She made no reply. I became aware of Nighteyes shadowing us. He drifted from the shelter of a cluster of trees to the snow-laden bushes of a garden. I doubted his presence was a great secret, and yet he was uneasy about strolling openly through the streets. It was strangely comforting to know he was close by.

  I tried to find another topic. “I have not seen Chade in some days now,” I ventured. I hated to fish for news of him. But he had not come to me and I would not go to him. I did not hate him, but I could not forgive his plans for my child.

  “I sang for him last night. ” She smiled at the recollection. “He was at his most witty. He can even bring a smile to Kettricken’s face. It is hard to believe he lived in such isolation for years. He draws people to himself like a flower draws bees. He has a most gentlemanly way of letting a woman know she is admired. And . . . ”

  “Chade?” The word burst from me incredulously. “Gentlemanly?”

  “Of course,” she said in amusement. “He can be quite charming, when he has the time. I sang for him and Kettricken the other night, and he was quite gracious in his thanks. A courtier’s tongue he has. ” She smiled to herself, and I could see that whatever Chade had said had stayed pleasantly with her. To try to envision Chade as a charmer of women required my mind to bend in an unaccustomed direction. I could think of nothing to say, and so left her in her pleasant reverie. After a time, she added unexpectedly, “He will not be going with us, you know. ”

  “Who? Where?” I could not decide if my recent fever had left me slow-witted or if the mi
nstrel’s mind jumped about like a flea.

  She patted my arm comfortingly. “You are getting tired. We had best turn back. I can always tell when you are wearied, you ask the most inane questions. ” She took a breath and returned to her topic. “Chade will not be going with us to seek Verity. He has to go back to Buck, to pass the word of your quest and hearten the folk there. Of course, he will respect your wishes and make no mention of you. Only that the Queen has set forth to find the King and restore him to the throne. ”

  She paused, and tried to say casually, “He has asked me to devise some simple ditties for him, based on the old songs so they may be easily learned and sung. ” She smiled at me and I could tell how pleased she was he had asked this of her. “He will spread them among the taverns and inns of the road and like seeds they will sprout and trail from there. Simple songs saying that Verity will return to set things right and that a Farseer heir will rise to the throne to unite the Six Duchies in both victory and peace. He says it is most important to keep the heart in the people, and to keep before them the image of Verity returning. ”

  I sorted my way back through her chatter of songs and prophecies. “Us, you said. Us, who? And going where?”

  She stripped off her glove and set her hand to my forehead quickly. “Are you feverish, again? A bit, perhaps. Let us turn back now. ” As we began retracing our steps through the quiet streets, she added patiently. “Us, you and I and Kettricken, going to find Verity. Had you forgotten that was why you came to the Mountains? Kettricken says the way will be hard. It is not terribly difficult to travel to the scene of the battle. But if Verity went on from there, then it is on one of the ancient paths marked on her old map, and they may not be paths at all anymore. Her father is plainly not enthused with her undertaking. His mind is fixed only on the waging of war against Regal. “While you seek your husband king, your false brother seeks to make our folks his slaves!’ he has told her. So she must gather what supplies are given to her willingly, and take only such folk as would go with her rather than stay to fight Regal. There are not many of those, to be sure, and . . . ”

  “I wish to go back to the Fool’s house,” I said faintly. My head was spinning and my stomach churning. I had forgotten that this had been the way of it at King Shrewd’s court. Why had I expected it to be different here? The plans would be made, the arrangements undertaken, and then they would tell me what they wished me to do and I would do it. Had not that always been my function? To go to such and such a place, and kill that certain man, a man I’d never met before, all on someone else’s say? I did not know why it suddenly shocked me so to find that all their momentous planning had moved on without any words from me, as if I were no more than a horse in a stall, waiting to be saddled, mounted, and reined to the hunt.

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  Well, was not that the bargain I had offered Chade, I reminded myself. That they could have my life, if they would but leave my child alone. Why be surprised? Why even be concerned at all? I should simply go back to the Fool’s, to sleep and eat and build my strength until called for.

  “Are you all right?” Starling asked me suddenly, anxiously. “I don’t think I have ever seen you so pale. ”

  “I’m fine,” I assured her dully. “I was just thinking it would be pleasant to help the Fool make the puppets for a time. ”

  She frowned again. “I still do not understand what you see in him. Why do not you come to stay in a room near Kettricken and me? You need little tending anymore; it is time you resumed your rightful place at the Queen’s side. ”

  “When the Queen summons me, I will go to her,” I said dutifully. “That will be time enough. ”

  22

  Departure

  CHADE FALLSTAR OCCUPIES a unique niche in the history of the Six Duchies. Although he was never acknowledged, his strong physical resemblance to the Farseers makes it almost certain that he was blood-related to the royal line. Be that as it may, who he was pales in significance compared to what he was. Some have said he was a spy for King Shrewd for decades before the Red Ship Wars. Others have linked his name to that of Lady Thyme, who almost certainly was a poisoner and thief for the royal family. These beliefs can never be substantiated.

  What can be known, without a doubt, was that he emerged into public life following the desertion of Buckkeep by the Pretender, Regal Farseer. He put his services at the beck and call of Lady Patience. She was able to draw on his established network of people throughout the Six Duchies, both to gather information and to distribute resources for the defense of the coastline. There is much evidence to suggest that initially he endeavored to remain a private and secretive figure. His unique appearance made this difficult and he eventually abandoned all attempts. Despite his years, he became something of a hero, a dashing old man, if you will, coming and going from inns and taverns at all hours, eluding and taunting Regal’s guardsmen, bringing news and passing funds for the defense of the Coastal Duchies. His exploits made him admired. Always he bade the folk of the Six Duchies to take heart and foretold to them that King Verity and Queen Kettricken would return, to lift from their backs the yokes of taxation and warfare under which they suffered. While a number of songs have been made of his deeds, the most accurate is the song cycle “Chade Fallstar’s Reckoning,” attributed to Queen Kettricken’s minstrel, Starling Birdsong.

  My memory rebels at recalling those last days in Jhaampe. A bleakness of spirit settled on me, one that remained unchanged by friendship or brandy. I could find no energy, no will to bestir myself. “If fate is some great wave that is going to bear me up and dash me against a wall, regardless of what I choose, why then I choose to do nothing. Let it do with me as it will,” I declared grandiosely, if a trifle drunkenly, to the Fool one evening. To this he said nothing. He simply continued sanding the shags into the wolf-puppet’s coat. Nighteyes, wakeful but silent, lay at the Fool’s feet. When I was drinking he shielded his mind from me and expressed his disgust by ignoring me. Kettle sat in the hearth corner, knitting and alternating between looking disappointed or disapproving. Chade sat in a straight-backed chair across the table from me. A cup of tea was before him and his eyes were cold as jade. Needless to say, I was drinking alone, for the third straight night. I was testing to the limits Burrich’s theory that while drinking could solve nothing, it could make the unbearable tolerable. It did not seem to be working for me. The more I drank, the less tolerable my situation seemed. And the more intolerable I became to my friends.

  The day had brought me more than I could bear. Chade had come to see me finally, to say that Kettricken wished to see me on the morrow. I allowed as I would be there. With a bit of prodding from Chade, I agreed that I would be presentable—washed, shaven, cleanly attired, and sober. None of which I was at that moment. It was a poor time for me to endeavor to match wits or words with Chade, but my judgment was such that I attempted it. I asked bellicose and accusing questions. He answered them calmly. Yes, he had suspected Molly carried my child, and yes, he had urged Burrich to become her protector. Burrich had already been seeing that she had money and shelter; he had been reluctant to share her dwelling, but when Chade had pointed out the dangers to her and the child if anyone else figured out the circumstances, Burrich had agreed. No, he had not told me. Why? Because Molly had coerced Burrich into promising her he would not tell me of her pregnancy. His condition for guarding her as Chade requested was that Chade would also respect that promise. Initially Burrich had hoped I would puzzle out for myself why Molly had disappeared. He had also confided to Chade that as soon as the child was born he would consider himself freed of his promise and would tell me, not that she was pregnant, but that I had a child. Even in my state, I could see that that was about as devious as Burrich had ever managed to be. A part of me appreciated the depth of his friendship that he’d bend his promise that far for me. But when he had gone to tell me of my daughter’s birth, he had instead discovered evidence of my death.

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  He had gone straight to Buck, to leave word with a stonemason there, who passed word to another and so on until Chade came to meet Burrich at the fish-docks. They had both been incredulous. “Burrich could not believe that you had died. I could not understand why you had still been there. I had left word with my watchers, all up and down the river road, for I had been sure you would not flee to Bingtown, but would immediately set out for the Mountains. I had been so sure that despite all you had endured, your heart was true. It was what I told to Burrich that night: that we must leave you alone, to discover for yourself where your loyalty was. I had wagered Burrich that left to your own devices you would be like an arrow released from a bow, flying straight to Verity. That, I think, was what shocked us both the most. That you had died there, and not on the road to your king. ”

  “Well,” I declared with a drunkard’s elaborate satisfaction, “you were both wrong. You both thought you knew me so well, you both thought you had crafted such a tool as could not defy your purposes. But I did NOT die there! Nor did I go to seek my king. I went to kill Regal. For myself. ” I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms on my chest. Then sat up abruptly at the uncomfortable pressure on my healing injury. “For myself!” I repeated. “Not for my king or Buck or any of the Six Duchies. For me, I went to kill him. For me. ”

  Chade merely looked at me. But from the hearth corner where Kettle rocked, her old voice rose in complacent satisfaction. “The White Scriptures say, “He shall thirst for the blood of his own kin, and his thirst shall go unslaked. The Catalyst shall hunger for a hearth and children in vain, for his children shall be another’s, and another’s child his own. . . . ’ ”

  “No one can force me to fulfill any such prophecies!” I vowed in a roar. “Who made them, anyway?”

  Kettle went on rocking. It was the Fool who answered me. He spoke mildly, without looking up from his work. “I did. In my childhood, in the days of my dreaming. Before I knew you anywhere, save in my dreams. ”

 
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