Assassins quest, p.62
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       Assassins Quest, p.62

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Wolves sing together, Nighteyes observed, just as Kettricken suggested, “Play us something we all know, Starling. Something to give us heart. ” So Starling played that ancient song about gathering flowers for one’s beloved, and we all sang along, some with more heart than others.

  As the last note died away, Kettle observed, “The wind’s dropping. ”

  We all listened, and then Kettricken crawled from the tent. I followed her, and we stood quiet for a time in a wind that had gone quieter. Dusk had stolen the colors from the world. In the wake of the wind, snow had begun thickly falling. “The storm has almost blown itself out,” she observed. “We can be on our way tomorrow. ”

  “None too soon for me,” I said. Come to me, come to me still echoed in the beating of my heart. Somewhere up in those Mountains, or beyond them, was Verity.

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  And the river of Skill.

  “As for me,” Kettricken said quietly. “Would that I had followed my instincts a year ago, and gone to the ends of the map. But I reasoned that I could do no better than Verity had done. And I feared to risk his child. A child I lost anyway, and thus failed him both ways. ”

  “Failed him?” I exclaimed in horror. “By losing his child?”

  “His child, his crown, his kingdom. His father. What did he entrust me with that I did not lose, FitzChivalry? Even as I rush to be with him again, I wonder how I can meet his eyes. ”

  “Oh, my queen, you are mistaken in this, I assure you. He would not perceive that you have failed him, but fears only that he abandoned you in the greatest of danger. ”

  “He only went to do what he knew he must,” Kettricken said quietly. And then added plaintively, “Oh, Fitz, how can you speak for what he feels, when you cannot even tell me where he is?”

  “Where he is, my queen, is but a bit of information, a spot on that map. But what he feels, and what he feels for you . . . that is what he breathes, and when we are together in the Skill, joined mind to mind, then I know such things, almost whether I would or no. ” I recalled the other times I had been privy unwillingly to Verity’s feelings for his queen, and was glad the night hid my face from her.

  “Would this Skill were a thing I could learn. . . . Do you know how often and how angry I have felt with you, solely because you could reach forth to the one I longed for, and know his mind and heart so easily? Jealousy is an ugly thing, and always I have tried to set it aside from me. But sometimes it seems so monstrously unfair that you are joined to him in such a way, and I am not. ”

  It had never occurred to me that she might feel such a thing. Awkwardly, I pointed out, “The Skill is as much curse as it is gift. Or so it has been to me. Even if it were a thing I could gift you with, my lady, I do not know that is a thing one would do to a friend. ”

  “To feel his presence and his love for even a moment, Fitz . . . for that I would accept any curse that rode with it. To know his touch again, in any form . . . can you imagine how I miss him?”

  “I think I can, my lady,” I said quietly. Molly. Like a hand gripping my heart. Chopping hard winter turnips on the tabletop. The knife was dull, she would ask Burrich to put an edge on it if he ever came in from the rain. He was cutting wood to take down to the village and sell tomorrow. The man worked too hard, his leg would be hurting him tonight.

  “Fitz? FitzChivalry!”

  I snapped back to Kettricken shaking me by the shoulders.

  “I’m sorry,” I said quietly. I rubbed at my eyes and laughed. “Irony. All my life, it has been so difficult to use the Skill. It came and went like the wind in a ship’s sails. Now I am here, and suddenly Skilling is as effortless as breathing. And I hunger to use it, to find out what is happening to those I love best. But Verity warns me I must not, and I must believe he knows best. ”

  “As must I,” she agreed wearily.

  We stood a moment longer in the dimness, and I fought a sudden impulse to put my arm around her shoulders and tell her it would be all right, that we would find her husband and king. Briefly, she seemed that tall slender girl who had come from the Mountains to be Verity’s bride. But now she was the Queen of the Six Duchies, and I had seen her strength. Surely she needed no comfort from one such as I.

  We cut more slices of meat from the freezing boar and then rejoined our companions in the tent. Nighteyes was sleeping contentedly. The Fool had Starling’s harp clutched between his knees and was using a skinning knife as a makeshift drawknife to gentle some of the frame’s lines. Starling sat beside him, watching and trying not to look anxious. Kettle had taken off a little pouch she wore about her neck and opened it, and was sorting out a handful of polished stones. As Kettricken and I built up the small fire in the brazier and prepared to cook the meat, Kettle insisted on explaining the rules of a game to me. Or attempting to. She finally gave up, exclaiming, “You’ll understand it when you’ve lost a few times. ”

  I lost more than a few times. She kept me at it for long hours after we had eaten. The Fool continued to shave wood from Starling’s harp, with many pauses to put a fresh edge on the knife. Kettricken was silent, almost moody, until the Fool noticed her melancholy mood and began to tell tales of Buckkeep life before she had come there. I listened with one ear, and even I was drawn back to those days when the Red Ships were no more than a tale and my life had been almost secure if not happy. Somehow the talk rounded into the various minstrels that had played at Buckkeep, both famous and lesser, and Starling plied the Fool with questions about them.

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  I soon found myself caught up in the play of the stones. It was strangely soothing: the stones themselves were red, black, and white, smoothly polished and pleasant to hold. The game involved each player randomly drawing stones from the pouch and then placing them on the intersections of lines on a patterned cloth. It was a game at once simple and complex. Each time I won a game, Kettle immediately introduced me to more complicated strategies. It engrossed me and freed my mind from memories or ponderings. When finally all the others were already drowsing in their sleeping skins, she set up a game on the board and bade me study it.

  “It can be won decisively in one move of a black stone,” she told me. “But the solution is not easy to see. ”

  I stared at the game layout and shook my head. “How long did it take you to learn to play?”

  She smiled to herself. “As a child, I was a fast learner. But I will admit you are faster. ”

  “I thought this game came from some far land. ”

  “No, it is an old Buck game. ”

  “I’ve never seen it played before. ”

  “It was not uncommon when I was a girl, but it was not taught to everyone. But that is of no matter now. Study the layout of the pieces. In the morning, tell me the solution. ”

  She left the pieces set up on the cloth by the brazier. Chade’s long training of my memory served me well. When I lay down, I visualized the board and gave myself one black stone with which to win. There were quite a variety of possible moves, as a black stone could also claim the place of a red stone and force it to another intersection, and a red stone had similar powers over a white. I closed my eyes, but held on to the game, playing the stone in various ways until I finally fell asleep. Either I dreamed of the game, or of nothing at all. It kept the Skill dreams safely at bay, but when I awoke in the morning, I still had no solution to the puzzle she had set me.

  I was the first one awake. I crawled out of the tent and returned with a pot packed full of new wet snow to melt for morning tea. It was substantially warmer outside than it had been in days. It cheered me, even as it made me wonder if spring was already a reality in the lowlands. Before my mind could start wandering, I returned to puzzling about the game. Nighteyes came to rest his head on my shoulder where I sat.

  I’m tired of dreaming of rocks. Lift up your eyes and see the whole thing, little brother. It is a hunting pack, not isolat
ed hunters. See. That one. Put the black there, and do not use the red to displace a white, but set it there to close the trap. That is all.

  I was still wondering at the marvelous simplicity of Nighteyes’ solution when Kettle awoke. With a grin she asked me if I had solved it yet. In answer, I took a black stone from the pouch and made the moves the wolf had suggested. Kettle’s face went slack with astonishment. Then she looked up at me in awe. “No one has ever figured it out that rapidly,” she told me.

  “I had help,” I admitted sheepishly. “It’s the wolf’s game, not mine. ”

  Kettle’s eyes grew round. “You are jesting with an old woman,” she rebuked me carefully.

  “No. I am not,” I told her, as I seemed to have hurt her feelings. “I thought about it for most of the night. I believe I even dreamed about game strategies. But when I woke, it was Nighteyes who had the solution. ”

  She was silent for a time. “I had thought that Nighteyes was . . . a clever pet. One who could hear your commands even if you did not speak them aloud. But now you say he can comprehend a game. Will you tell me he understands the words I speak?”

  Across the tent, Starling was propped up on one elbow, listening to the conversation. I tried to think of a way to dissemble, then rejected it fiercely. I squared my shoulders as if I were reporting to Verity himself and spoke clearly. “We are Wit-bound. What I hear and understand, he comprehends as I do. What interests him, he learns. I do not say he could read a scroll, or remember a song. But if a thing intrigues him, he thinks on it, in his own way. As a wolf, usually, but sometimes almost as anyone might . . . ” I struggled to try and put in words something I myself did not understand perfectly. “He saw the game as a pack of wolves driving game. Not as black and red and white markers. And he saw where he would go, were he hunting with that pack, to make their kill more likely. I suppose that sometimes I see things as he sees them . . . as a wolf. It is not wrong, I believe. Only a different way of perceiving the world. ”

  There was still a trace of superstitious fear in Kettle’s eyes as she glanced from me to the sleeping wolf. Nighteyes chose that moment to let his tail rise and fall in a sleepy wag to indicate he was fully cognizant that we spoke of him. Kettle gave a shiver. “What you do with him . . . is it like Skilling from human to human, only to a wolf?”

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  I started to shake my head, but then had to shrug. “The Wit begins more as a sharing of feelings. Especially when I was a child. Following smells, chasing a chicken because it would run, enjoying food together. But when you have been together as long as Nighteyes and I have, it starts to be something else. It goes beyond feelings, and it’s never really words. I am more aware of the animal that my mind lives inside. He is more aware of . . . ”

  Thinking. Of what comes before and after choosing to do an action. One becomes aware that one is always making choices, and considers what the best ones are.

  Exactly. I repeated his words aloud for Kettle. By now Nighteyes was sitting up. He made an elaborate show of stretching and then sat looking at her, his head cocked to one side.

  “I see,” she said faintly. “I see. ” Then she got up and left the tent.

  Starling sat up and stretched. “It gives one an entirely different outlook on scratching his ears,” she observed. The Fool answered her with a snort of laughter, sat up in his bedding, and immediately reached to scratch Nighteyes behind the ears. The wolf fell over on him in appreciation. I growled at both of them and went back to making tea.

  We were not as swift to be packed and on our way. A thick layer of damp snow overlay everything, making breaking camp that much more difficult. We cut up what was left of the boar and took it with us. The jeppas were rounded up; despite the storm, they had not wandered far. The secret seemed to be in the bag of sweetened grain that Kettricken kept to lure the leader. When we were loaded and finally ready to leave, Kettle announced that I must not be allowed to walk on the road, and that someone must always be with me. I bristled a bit at that, but they ignored me. The Fool volunteered quickly to be my first partner. Starling gave him an odd smile and a shake of her head over that. I accepted their ridicule by sulking manfully. They ignored that, too.

  In a short time the women and the jeppas were moving easily up the road, while the Fool and I scrabbled alongside on the berm that marked the edge of it. Kettle turned to shake her walking stick. “Get him farther away than that!” she scolded the Fool. “Get to where you can just see us to follow us. Go on, now. Go on. ”

  So we obediently edged back into the woods. As soon as we were out of sight of the others, the Fool turned to me and excitedly demanded, “Who is Kettle?”

  “You know as much as I do,” I pointed out shortly. And added a question of my own, “What is between you and Starling now?”

  He lifted his eyebrows at me and winked slyly.

  “I doubt that very much,” I retorted.

  “Ah, not all are as immune to my wiles as you are, Fitz. What can I tell you? She pines for me, she yearns for me in the depths of her soul, but knows not how to express it, poor thing. ”

  I gave it up as a bad question. “What do you mean by asking me, “Who is Kettle?’ ”

  He gave me a pitying glance. “It is not so complex a question, princeling. Who is this woman who knows so much of what troubles you, who suddenly fishes out of a pocket a game I have only seen mentioned once in a very old scroll, who sings for us “Six Wise Men Went to Jhaampe-Town’ with two additional verses I’ve never heard anywhere. Who, O light of my life, is Kettle, and why does so ancient a woman choose to spend her last days hiking up a mountain with us?”

  “You’re in fine spirits this morning,” I observed sourly.

  “Aren’t I?” he agreed. “And you are almost as adept at avoiding my question. Surely, you must have some musings on this mystery to share with a poor Fool?”

  “She doesn’t give me enough information about herself to base any wondering on,” I returned.

  “So. What can we surmise about one who guards her tongue as closely as all that? About someone who seems to know something of the Skill as well? And the ancient games of Buck, and old poetry? How old do you suppose she is?”

  I shrugged. “She didn’t like my song about Crossfire’s coterie,” I offered suddenly.

  “Ah, but that could easily have been just your singing. Let’s not grasp at straws, here. ”

  In spite of myself, I smiled. “It has been so long since your tongue has had an edge to it, it’s almost a relief to hear you mock me. ”

  “Had I known you missed it, I would have been rude to you much sooner. ” He grinned. Then he grew more serious. “FitzChivalry, mystery hovers about that woman like flies on . . . spilt beer. She absolutely reeks of omens and portents and prophecies coming into focus. I think it is time one of us asked her a few direct questions. ” He smiled at me. “Your best chance will be when she is shepherding you along this afternoon. Be subtle, of course. Ask her who was king when she was a girl. And why she was exiled. ”

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  “Exiled?” I laughed aloud. “There’s a leap of the imagination. ”

  “Do you think so? I don’t. Ask her. And be sure to tell me whatever she doesn’t say. ”

  “And in return for all this, you will tell me what is truly going on between you and Starling?”

  He gave me a sideways glance. “Are you sure you want to know? The last time we made such a trade, when I gave you the secret you’d bargained for, you found you did not want it. ”

  “Is this such a secret?”

  He arched one eyebrow at me. “You know, I am hardly certain of the answer to that myself. Sometimes you surprise me, Fitz. More often, you don’t, of course. Most often I surprise myself. Such as when I volunteer to slog through loose snow and dodge trees with some bastard when I could be parading up a perfectly straight avenue with a string of charming jeppas.

  I got as little information from him the rest of the morning. When afternoon came, it was not Kettle but Starling who was my walking companion. I expected that to be uncomfortable. I still had not forgotten that she had bargained her knowledge of my child in order to be part of this expedition. But somehow in the days since we had begun our journey, my anger had become a weary wariness toward her. I knew now there was no bit of information she would scruple to use against me, and so I guarded my tongue, resolving to say nothing at all of Molly or my daughter. Not that it would do much good now.

  But to my surprise, Starling was affable and chatty. She plied me with questions, not about Molly, but about the Fool, to the point at which I began to wonder if she had conceived a sudden affection for him. There had been a few times at court when women had taken an interest in him and pursued him. To those who were attracted by the novelty of his appearance, he had been mercilessly cruel in exposing the shallowness of their interest. There had been one gardener maid who was impressed with his wit so much that she was tongue-tied in his presence. I heard kitchen gossip that she left bouquets of flowers for him at the base of his tower stairs, and some surmised that she had occasionally been invited to ascend those steps. She had had to leave Buckkeep Castle to care for her elderly mother in a distant town, and that had been where it ended, as far as I knew.

  Yet as slight as this knowledge of the Fool was, I kept it from Starling, turning aside her questions with banalities that the two of us were childhood friends whose duties had left us very little time for socializing. This was actually very close to the truth, but I could see it both frustrated and amused her. Her other questions were as odd. She asked if I had ever wondered what his true name was. I told her that not being able to recall the name my own mother had given me had left me chary of asking others such questions. That quieted her for a time, but then she demanded to know how he had dressed as a child. My descriptions of his seasonal motleys did not suit her, but I truthfully told her that until Jhaampe I had never seen him dressed in other than his jester’s clothes. By afternoon’s end, her questions and my answers had more of sparring in them than conversation. I was glad to join the others in a camp, pitched at quite a distance from the Skill road.

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