Assassins quest, p.6
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       Assassins Quest, p.6

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Page 20


  “Chade’s gone,” he said quietly. I heard him right the fallen chair. He sat on it and began taking his boots off. I felt no hostility from him, no animosity. It was as if my angry words had never been spoken. Or as if he’d been pushed past anger and hurt into numbness.

  “It’s too dark for him to be walking,” I said to the flames. I spoke carefully, fearing to break the spell of calm.

  “I know. But he had a small lantern with him. He said he feared more to stay, feared he could not keep his resolve with you. To let you go. ”

  What I had been snarling for earlier now seemed like an abandonment. The fear surged up in me, undercutting my resolve. I sat up abruptly, panicky. I took a long shuddering breath. “Burrich. What I said to you earlier, I was angry, I was . . . ”

  “Right on target. ” The sound he made might have been a laugh, if not so freighted with bitterness.

  “Only in the way that people who know one another best know how to hurt one another best,” I pleaded.

  “No. It is so. Perhaps this dog does need a master. ” The mockery in his voice as he spoke of himself was more poisonous than any venom I had spewed. I could not speak. He sat up, let his boots drop to the floor. He glanced at me. “I did not set out to make you just like me, Fitz. That is not a thing I would wish on any man. I wished you to be like your father. But sometimes it seemed to me that no matter what I did, you persisted in patterning your life after mine. ” He stared into the embers for a time. At last he began to speak again, softly, to the fire. He sounded as if he were telling an old tale to a sleepy child.

  “I was born in the Chalced States. A little coast town, a fishing and shipping port. Lees. My mother did washing to support my grandmother and me. My father was dead before I was born, taken by the sea. My grandmother looked after me, but she was very old, and often ill. ” I heard more than saw his bitter smile. “A lifetime of being a slave does not leave a woman with sound health. She loved me, and did her best with me. But I was not a boy who would play in the cottage at quiet games. And there was no one at home strong enough to oppose my will.

  “So I bonded, very young, to the only strong male in my world who was interested in me. A street cur. Mangy. Scarred. His only value was survival, his only loyalty to me. As my loyalty was to him. His world, his way was all I knew. Taking what you wanted, when you wanted it, and not worrying past getting it. I am sure you know what I mean. The neighbors thought I was a mute. My mother thought I was a half-wit. My grandmother, I am sure, had her suspicions. She tried to drive the dog away, but like you, I had a will of my own in those matters. I suppose I was about eight when he ran between a horse and its cart and was kicked to death. He was stealing a slab of bacon at the time. ” He got up from his chair, and went to his blankets.

  Burrich had taken Nosy away from me when I was less than that age. I had believed him dead. But Burrich had experienced the actual, violent death of his bond companion. It was little different from dying oneself. “What did you do?” I asked quietly.

  I heard him making up his bed and lying down on it. “I learned to talk,” he said after a bit. “My grandmother forced me to survive Slash’s death. In a sense, I transferred my bond to her. Not that I forgot Slash’s lessons. I became a thief, a fairly good one. I made my mother and grandmother’s life a bit better with my new trade, though they never suspected what I did. About a hand of years later, the blood plague went through Chalced. It was the first time I’d ever seen it. They both died, and I was alone. So I went for a soldier. ”

  I listened in amazement. All the years I had known him as a taciturn man. Drink had never loosened his tongue, but only made him more silent. Now the words were spilling out of him, washing away my years of wondering and suspecting. Why he suddenly spoke so openly, I did not know. His voice was the only sound in the firelit room.

  “I first fought for some petty land chief in Chalced. Jecto. Not knowing or caring why we fought, if there was any right or wrong to it. ” He snorted softly. “As I told you, a living is not a life. But I did well enough at it. I earned a reputation for viciousness. No one expects a boy to fight with a beast’s ferocity and guile. It was my only key to survival amongst the kind of men I soldiered with then. But one day we lost a campaign. I spent several months, no, almost a year, learning my grandmother’s hatred of slavers. When I escaped, I did what she had always dreamed of doing. I went to the Six Duchies, where there are no slaves, nor slavers. Grizzle was Duke of Shoaks then. I soldiered for him for a bit. Somehow I ended up taking care of my troop’s horses. I liked it well enough. Grizzle’s troops were gentlemen compared with the dregs that soldiered for Jecto, but I still preferred the company of horses to theirs.

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  “When the Sandsedge war was done, Duke Grizzle took me home to his own stables. I bonded with a young stallion there. Neko. I had the care of him, but he was not mine. Grizzle rode him to hunt. Sometimes, they used him for stud. But Grizzle was not a gentle man. Sometimes he put Neko to fight other stallions, as some men fight dogs or cocks for amusement. A mare in season, and the better stallion to have her. And I . . . I was bonded to him. His life was mine as much as my own was. And so I grew to be a man. Or at least, to have the shape of one. ” Burrich was silent a moment. He did not need to explain further to me. After a time, he sighed and went on.

  “Duke Grizzle sold Neko and six mares, and I went with them. Up the coast, to Rippon. ” He cleared his throat. “Some kind of horse plague went through that man’s stables. Neko died, just a day after he started to sicken. I was able to save two of his mares. Keeping them alive kept me from killing myself. But afterward, I lost all spirit. I was good for nothing, save drinking. Besides, there were scarcely enough animals left in that stable to warrant calling it such. So I was let go. Eventually, to become a soldier again, this time for a young prince named Chivalry. He’d come to Rippon to settle a boundary dispute between Shoaks and Rippon duchies. I don’t know why his sergeant took me on. These were crack troops, his personal guard. I had run out of money and been painfully sober for three days. I didn’t meet their standards as a man, let alone as a soldier. In the first month I was with Chivalry, I was up before him for discipline twice. For fighting. Like a dog, or a stallion, I thought it was the only way to establish position with the others.

  “The first time I was hauled before the Prince, bloody and struggling still, I was shocked to see we were of an age. Almost all his troops were older than I; I had expected to confront a middle-aged man. I stood there before him and I met his eyes. And something like recognition passed between us. As if we each saw . . . what we might have been in different circumstances. It did not make him go easy on me. I lost my pay and earned extra duties. Everyone expected Chivalry to discharge me the second time. I stood before him, ready to hate him, and he just looked at me. He cocked his head as a dog will when it hears something far off. He docked my pay and gave me more duties. But he kept me. Everyone had told me I’d be discharged. Now they all expected me to desert. I can’t say why I didn’t. Why soldier for no pay and extra duties?”

  Burrich cleared his throat again. I heard him shoulder deeper into his bed. For a time he was silent. He went on again at last, almost unwillingly. “The third time they dragged me in, it was for brawling in a tavern. The City Guard hauled me before him, still bloody, still drunk, still wanting to fight. By then my fellow guards wanted nothing more to do with me. My sergeant was disgusted, I’d made no friends among the common soldiers. So the City Guard had me in custody. And they told Chivalry I’d knocked two men out and held off five others with a stave until the Guard came to tip the odds their way.

  “Chivalry dismissed the Guards, with a purse to pay for damages to the tavern keeper. He sat behind his table, some half-finished writing before him, and looked me up and down. Then he stood up without a word and pushed his table back to a corner of the room. He took off his shirt and picked up
a pike from the corner. I thought he intended to beat me to death. Instead, he threw me another pike. And he said, “All right, show me how you held off five men. ’ And lit into me. ” He cleared his throat. “I was tired, and half drunk. But I wouldn’t quit. Finally, he got in a lucky one. Laid me out cold.

  “When I woke up, the dog had a master again. Of a different sort. I know you’ve heard people say Chivalry was cold and stiff and correct to a fault. He wasn’t. He was what he believed a man should be. More than that. It was what he believed a man should want to be. He took a thieving, unkempt scoundrel and . . . ” He faltered, sighed suddenly. “He had me up before dawn the next day. Weapons practice till neither of us could stand. I’d never had any formal training at it before. They’d just handed me a pike and sent me out to fight. He drilled me, and taught me sword. He’d never liked the axe, but I did. So he taught me what he knew of it, and arranged for me to learn it from a man who knew its strategies. Then the rest of the day, he’d have me at his heels. Like a dog, as you say. I don’t know why. Maybe he was lonely for someone his own age. Maybe he missed Verity. Maybe . . . I don’t know.

  “He taught me numbers first, then reading. He put me in charge of his horse. Then his hounds and hawk. Then in general charge of the pack beasts and wagon animals. But it wasn’t just work he taught me. Cleanliness. Honesty. He put a value on what my mother and grandmother had tried to instill in me so long ago. He showed them to me as a man’s values, not just manners for inside a woman’s house. He taught me to be a man, not a beast in a man’s shape. He made me see it was more than rules, it was a way of being. A life, rather than a living. ”

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  He stopped talking. I heard him get up. He went to the table and picked up the bottle of elderberry wine that Chade had left. I watched him as he turned it several times in his hands. Then he set it down. He sat down on one of the chairs and stared into the fire.

  “Chade said I should leave you tomorrow,” he said quietly. He looked down at me. “I think he’s right. ”

  I sat up and looked up at him. The dwindling light of the fire made a shadowy landscape of his face. I could not read his eyes.

  “Chade says you have been my boy too long. Chade’s boy, Verity’s boy, even Patience’s boy. That we kept you a boy and looked after you too much. He believes that when a man’s decisions came to you, you made them as a boy. Impulsively. Intending to be right, intending to be good. But intentions are not good enough. ”

  “Sending me out to kill people was keeping me a boy?” I asked incredulously.

  “Did you listen to me at all? I killed people as a boy. It didn’t make me a man. Nor you. ”

  “So what am I to do?” I asked sarcastically. “Go looking for a prince to educate me?”

  “There. You see? A boy’s reply. You don’t understand, so you get angry. And venomous. You ask me that question but you already know you won’t like my answer. ”

  “Which is?”

  “It might be to tell you that you could do worse than to go looking for a prince. But I’m not going to tell you what to do. Chade has advised me not to. And I think he is right. But not because I think you make your decisions as a boy would. No more than I did at your age. I think you decide as an animal would. Always in the now, with never a thought for tomorrow, or what you recall from yesterday. I know you know what I’m speaking of. You stopped living as a wolf because I forced you to. Now I must leave you alone, for you to find out if you want to live as a wolf or a man. ”

  He met my gaze. There was too much understanding in his eyes. It frightened me to think that he might actually know what I was facing. I denied that possibility, pushed it aside entirely. I turned a shoulder to him, almost hoping my anger would come back. But Burrich sat silently.

  I finally looked up at him. He was staring into the fire. It took me a long time to swallow my pride and ask, “So, what are you going to do?”

  “I told you. I’m leaving tomorrow. ”

  Harder still to ask the next question. “Where will you go?”

  He cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. “I’ve a friend. She’s alone. She could use a man’s strength about her place. Her roof needs mending, and there’s planting to do. I’ll go there, for a time. ”

  “ “She’?” I dared to ask, raising an eyebrow.

  His voice was flat. “Nothing like that. A friend. You would probably say that I’ve found someone else to look after. Perhaps I have. Perhaps it’s time to give that where it is truly needed. ”

  I looked into the fire, now. “Burrich. I truly needed you. You brought me back from the edge, back to being a man. ”

  He snorted. “If I’d done right by you in the first place, you’d never have gone to the edge. ”

  “No. I’d have gone to my grave instead. ”

  “Would you? Regal would have had no charges of Wit magic to bring against you. ”

  “He’d have found some excuse to kill me. Or just opportunity. He doesn’t really need an excuse to do what he wants. ”

  “Perhaps. Perhaps not. ”

  We sat watching the fire die. I reached up to my ear, fumbled with the catch on the earring. “I want to give this back to you. ”

  “I would prefer that you kept it. Wore it. ” It was almost a request. It felt odd.

  “I don’t deserve whatever it is that this earring symbolizes to you. I haven’t earned it, I have no right to it. ”

  “What it symbolizes to me is not something that is earned. It’s something I gave to you, deserved or not. Whether or not you wear that, you still take it with you. ”

  I left the earring dangling from my ear. A tiny silver net with a blue gem trapped inside it. Once Burrich had given it to my father. Patience, all unknowing of its significance, had passed it on to me. I did not know if he wanted me to wear it for the same reason he had given it to my father. I sensed there was more about it, but he had not told me and I would not ask. Still, I waited, expecting a question from him. But he only rose and went back to his blankets. I heard him lie down.

  I wished he had asked me the question. It hurt that he hadn’t. I answered it anyway. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I said into the darkened room. “All my life, I’ve always had tasks to do, masters to answer to. Now that I don’t . . . it’s a strange feeling. ”

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  I thought for a time that he wasn’t going to reply at all. Then he said abruptly, “I’ve known that feeling. ”

  I looked up at the darkened ceiling. “I’ve thought of Molly. Often. Do you know where she went?”

  “Yes. ”

  When he said no more than that, I knew better than to ask. “I know the wisest course is to let her go. She believes me dead. I hope that whoever she went to takes better care of her than I did. I hope he loves her as she deserves. ”

  There was a rustling of Burrich’s blankets. “What do you mean?” he asked guardedly.

  It was harder to say than I had thought it would be. “She told me when she left me that day that there was someone else. Someone that she cared for as I cared for my king, someone she put ahead of everything and everyone else in her life. ” My throat closed up suddenly. I took a breath, willing the knot in my throat away. “Patience was right,” I said.

  “Yes, she was,” Burrich agreed.

  “I can blame it on no one save myself. Once I knew Molly was safe, I should have let her go her own way. She deserves a man who can give her all his time, all his devotion. . . . ”

  “Yes, she does,” Burrich agreed relentlessly. “A shame you didn’t realize that before you had been with her. ”

  It is quite one thing to admit a fault to yourself. It is another thing entirely to have a friend not only agree with you, but point out the full depth of the fault. I didn’t deny it, or demand how he knew of it. If Molly had told him, I didn’t want to know what else she had said. If he had ded
uced it on his own, I didn’t want to know I had been that obvious. I felt a surge of something, a fierceness that made me want to snarl at him. I bit down on my tongue and forced myself to consider what I felt. Guilt and shame that it had ended in pain for her, and made her doubt her worth. And a certainty that no matter how wrong it had been, it had also been right. When I was sure of my voice, I said quietly, “I will never regret loving her. Only that I could not make her my wife in all eyes as she was in my heart. ”

  He said nothing to that. But after a time, that separating silence became deafening. I could not sleep for it. Finally I spoke. “So. Tomorrow we go our own ways, I suppose. ”

  “I suppose so,” Burrich said. After a time, he added, “Good luck. ” He actually sounded as if he meant it. As if he realized how much luck I would need.

  I closed my eyes. I was so tired now. So tired. Tired of hurting people I loved. But it was done now. Tomorrow Burrich would leave and I would be free. Free to follow my heart’s desire, with no intervention from anyone.

  Free to go to Tradeford and kill Regal.


  The Quest

  THE SKILL IS the traditional magic of the Farseer royalty. While it seems to run strongest in the royal bloodlines, it is not all that rare to discover it in a lesser strength in those distantly related to the Farseer line, or in those whose ancestry includes both OutIslanders and Six Duchies folk. It is a magic of the mind, giving the practitioner the power to communicate silently with those at a distance from him. Its possibilities are many; at its simplest, it may be used to convey messages, to influence the thoughts of enemies (or friends) to sway them to one’s purposes. Its drawbacks are twofold: it requires a great deal of energy to wield it on a daily basis, and it offers to its practitioners an attraction that has been misnamed as a pleasure. It is more of a euphoric, one that increases in power proportionately with the strength and duration of Skilling. It can lure the practitioner into an addiction to Skilling, one which eventually saps all mental and physical strength, to leave the mage a great, drooling babe.

  Burrich left the next morning. When I awoke, he was up and dressed and moving about the hut, packing his things. It did not take him long. He took his personal effects, but left me the lion’s share of our provisions. There had been no drink the night before, yet we both spoke as softly and moved as carefully as if pained by the morning. We deferred to one another until it seemed to me worse than if we had not been speaking to one another at all. I wanted to babble apologies, to beg him to reconsider, to do something, anything, to keep our friendship from ending this way. At the same time, I wished him gone, wished it over, wished it to be tomorrow, a new day dawning and I alone. I held to my resolution as if gripping the sharp blade of a knife. I suspect he felt something of the same, for sometimes he would stop and look up at me as if about to speak. Then our eyes would meet and hold for a bit, until one or the other of us looked aside. Too much hovered unspoken between us.

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