Assassins quest, p.73
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       Assassins Quest, p.73
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “And did we not, my shy one?” He leered at me outrageously.

  “Fool,” I said warningly.

  “Ah. ” He sighed suddenly. “Perhaps the truth is, I fear to show her my proof, lest ever afterward she find all other men a disappointment. ” He gestured meaningfully at himself.

  I looked at him levelly until he grew sober. “What does it matter what she thinks? Let her think whatever is easiest for her to believe. ”

  “Meaning?”

  “She needed someone to confide in and, for a time, chose me. Perhaps it was easier for her to do that if she believed I was a woman, also. ” He sighed again. “That is one thing that in all my years among your folk I have never become accustomed to. The great importance that you attach to what gender one is. ”

  “Well, it is important . . . ” I began.

  “Rubbish!” he exclaimed. “Mere plumbing, when all is said and done. Why is it important?”

  I stared at him, at a loss for words. It all seemed so obvious to me as to not need saying. After a time, I said, “Could you not simply tell her you are a man and let the issue be laid to rest?”

  “That would scarcely lay it to rest, Fitz,” he replied judiciously. He clambered over a fallen tree and waited for me to follow. “For then she would need to know why, if I am a man, I do not desire her. It would have to be either a fault in me, or something I perceived as a fault in her. No. I do not think anything needs to be said on that topic. Starling, however, has the minstrel’s failing. She thinks that everything in the world, no matter how private, should be a topic for discussion. Or better yet, made into a song. Ah, yes!”

  He struck a sudden pose in the middle of the forest trail. His stance was so artfully reminiscent of Starling when she readied herself to sing that I was horrified. I glanced back at her as the Fool launched into sudden, hearty song:

  “Oh, when the Fool pisses

  Pray tell, what’s the angle?

  Did we take down his pants

  Would he dimple or dangle?”

  My eyes darted from Starling to the Fool. He bowed, an embroidery of the elaborate bow that often marked the end of her performances. I wanted at once to laugh aloud and to sink into the earth. I saw Starling redden and start forward, but Kettle caught at her sleeve and said something severely. Then they both glared at me. It was not the first time that one of the Fool’s escapades had embarrassed me, but it was one of the most keenly edged ones. I made a helpless gesture back at them, then rounded on the Fool. He was capering down the path ahead of me. I hastened to catch up with him.

  “Did you ever stop to think you might hurt her feelings?” I asked him angrily.

  “I gave it as much thought as she gave to whether such an allegation might hurt mine. ” He rounded on me suddenly, wagging a long finger. “Admit it. You asked that question with never a thought as to whether it would hurt my vanity. How would you feel if I demanded proof that you were a man? Ah!” His shoulders slumped suddenly and he seemed to lose all energy. “Such a thing to waste words on, with all else we must confront. Let it go, Fitz, and I will as well. Let her refer to me as “she’ as much as she wishes. I will do my best to ignore it. ”

  I should have left it alone. I did not. “It is only that she thinks that you love me,” I tried to explain.

  He gave me an odd look. “I do. ”

  “I mean, as a man and a woman love. ”

  He took a breath. “And how is that?”

  “I mean . . . ” It half-angered me that he pretended not to understand me. “For bedding. For . . . ”

  “And is that how a man loves a woman?” he interrupted me suddenly. “For bedding?”

  “It’s a part of it!” I felt suddenly defensive but could not say why.

  He arched an eyebrow at me and said calmly, “You are confusing plumbing and love again. ”

  “It’s more than plumbing!” I shouted at him. A bird abruptly flew off, cawing. I glanced back at Kettle and Starling, who exchanged puzzled glances.

  “I see,” he said. He thought a bit as I strode ahead of him on the path. Then, from behind me he called out, “Tell me, Fitz, did you love Molly or that which was under her skirts?”

  Now it was my turn to be affronted. But I was not going to let him baffle me into silence. “I love Molly and all that is a part of her,” I declared. I hated the heat that rose in my cheeks.

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  “There, now you have said it,” the Fool replied as if I had proven his point for him. “And I love you, and all that is a part of you. ” He cocked his head and the next words held a challenge. “And do you not return that to me?”

  He waited. I desperately wished I had never started this discussion. “You know I love you,” I said at last, grudgingly. “After all that has been between us, how can you even ask? But I love you as a man loves another man. . . . ” Here the Fool leered at me mockingly. Then a sudden glint lit his eyes, and I knew that he was about to do something awful to me.

  He leaped to the top of a fallen log. From that height, he gave Starling a triumphant look and cried dramatically, “He loves me, he says! And I love him!” Then with a whoop of wild laughter he leapt down and raced ahead of me on the trail.

  I ran my hand back through my hair and then slowly clambered over the log. I heard Kettle laughing and Starling’s angry comments. I walked silently through the forest, wishing I’d had the sense to keep my mouth shut. I was certain that Starling was simmering with fury. It was bad enough that lately she had almost no words for me. I had accepted that she found my Wit something of an abomination. She was not the first to be dismayed by it; at least she showed some tolerance for me. But now the anger she carried would have a more personal bite to it. One more small loss of what little I had left. A part of me greatly missed the closeness we had shared for a time. I missed the human comfort of having her sleep against my back, or suddenly take my arm when we were walking. I thought I had closed my heart against those needs, but I suddenly missed that simple warmth.

  As if that thought had opened a breach in my walls, I suddenly thought of Molly. And Nettle, both in danger because of me. Without warning, my heart was in my throat. I must not think of them, I warned myself, and reminded myself that there was nothing I could do. There was no way I could warn them without betraying them. There was no possible way I could reach them before Regal’s henchmen did. All I could do was trust to Burrich’s strong right arm, and cling to the hope that Regal did not truly know where they were.

  I jumped over a trickling creek and found the Fool waiting for me on the other side. He said nothing as he fell into pace beside me. His merriment seemed to have deserted him.

  I reminded myself that I scarcely knew where Molly and Burrich were. Oh, I knew the name of a nearby village, but as long as I kept that to myself, they were safe.

  “What you know, I can know. ”

  “What did you say?” I asked the Fool uneasily. His words had replied so exactly to my thoughts that it sent a chill up my spine.

  “I said, what you know, I can know,” he repeated absently.

  “Why?”

  “Exactly my thought. Why would I wish to know what you know?”

  “No. I mean, why did you say that?”

  “In truth, Fitz, I’ve no idea. The words popped into my head and I said them. I often say things I have not well considered. ” The last he said almost as an apology.

  “As do I,” I agreed. I said no more to him, but it bothered me. He seemed, since the incident at the pillar, to be much more of the Fool I remembered from Buckkeep. I welcomed his sudden growth in confidence and spirits but I also worried that he might have too much faith in events flowing as they should. I also recalled that his sharp tongue was more prone to bare conflicts than resolve them. I myself had felt its edge more than once, but in the context of King Shrewd’s court, I had expected it. Here, in such a small company, it seemed to cu
t more sharply. I wondered if there were any way I could soften his razor humor. I shook my head to myself, then resolutely dredged up Kettle’s latest game problem and kept it before my mind even as I clambered over forest debris and sidestepped hanging branches.

  As late afternoon wore on, our path led us deeper and deeper into a valley. At one point the ancient trail afforded a view of what lay below us. I glimpsed the green-beaded, trailing branches of willows coming into leaf and the rose-tinged trunks of paper birches presiding over a deeply grassed meadow. Beyond I saw the brown standing husks of last year’s cattails deeper in the vale. The lush rankness of the grasses and ferns foretold swampland as surely as the green smell of standing water did. When the ranging wolf came back wet to his flanks, I knew I was right.

  Before long we came to where an energetic stream had long ago washed out a bridge and devoured the road to either side of it. Now it trickled shining and silver in a gravelly bed, but the fallen trees on either bank attested to its floodtime fury. A chorus of frogs stilled suddenly at our approach. I went rock to rock to get past it with dry feet. We had not gone far before a second stream crossed our path. Given a choice of wet feet or wet boots, I chose the former. The water was icy. The only kindness was that it numbed my feet from the stones in its bed. On the far side I put my boots back on. Our small company had closed its ranks as the trail grew more difficult. Now we continued to march silently together. Blackbirds called and early insects hummed.

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  “So much life here,” Kettricken said softly. Her words seemed to hang in the still sweet air. I found myself nodding in agreement. So much life around us, both green and animal. It filled my Wit-sense and seemed to hang in the air like a mist. After the barren stones of the mountains and the deserted Skill road, this abundance of life was heady.

  Then I saw the dragon.

  I halted in my tracks and lifted my arms out in a sudden gesture for both stillness and silence that all seemed to recognize. All of my companions’ gazes followed mine. Starling gasped and the hackles on the wolf stood up. We stared at it, as unmoving as it was.

  Golden and green, he sprawled under the trees in their dappled shade. He was far enough off the trail that I could only see patches of him through the trees, but those were impressive enough. His immense head, as long as a horse’s body, rested deep in the moss. His single eye that I could see was closed. A great crest of feather-scales, rainbow-hued, lay lax about his throat. Similar tufts above each eye looked almost comical, save that there could be nothing comical about a creature so immense and so strange. I saw a scaled shoulder, and winding between two trees, a length of tail. Old leaves were heaped about it like a sort of nest.

  After a long breathless moment, we exchanged glances. Kettricken raised her eyebrows at me, but I deferred to her with a tiny shrug. I had no concept of what dangers it might present, or how to face them. Very slowly and silently I drew my sword. It suddenly looked like a very silly weapon. As well face a bear with a table knife. I don’t know how long our tableau held. It seemed an endless time. My muscles were beginning to ache with the strain of remaining motionless. The jeppas shifted impatiently, but held their places in line as long as Kettricken kept their leader still. At last Kettricken made a small silent motion, and slowly started our party forward again.

  When I could no longer see the slumbering beast, I began to breathe a bit easier. Just as quickly, reaction set in. My hand ached from gripping my sword hilt and all my muscles suddenly went rubbery. I wiped my sweaty hair back from my face. I turned to exchange a relieved look with the Fool, only to find him staring beyond me with unbelieving eyes. I turned hastily, and like flocking birds, the others mimed my gesture. Yet again we halted, silently transfixed, to stare at a sleeping dragon.

  This one sprawled in the deep shade of evergreen trees. Like the first, she nestled deep in moss and forest debris. But there the resemblance ended. Her long sinuous tail was coiled and wrapped around her like a garland, and her smoothly scaled hide shone a rich, coppery brown. I could see wings folded tight to her narrow body. Her long neck was craned over her back like a sleeping goose’s and the shape of her head was birdlike also, even to a hawklike beak. From the creature’s brow spiraled up a shining horn, wickedly sharp at the tip. The four limbs folded beneath her put me more in mind of a hind than a lizard. To call both these creatures dragons seemed a contradiction, yet I had no other word for beings such as these.

  Again we stood silent and staring while the jeppas shifted restlessly. Abruptly Kettricken spoke. “I do not think they are living beings. I think they are clever carvings of stone. ”

  My Wit-sense told me otherwise. “They are alive!” I cautioned her in a whisper. I started to quest toward one, but Nighteyes near panicked. I drew my mind-touch back. “They sleep very deeply, as if still hibernating from the cold weather. But I know they are alive. ”

  While Kettricken and I were speaking, Kettle went to decide it for herself. I saw Kettricken’s eyes widen, and turned to look back at the dragon, fearing it was awakening. Instead I saw Kettle place her withered hand on the creature’s still brow. Her hand seemed to tremble as she touched it, but then she smiled, almost sadly, and stroked her hand up the spiraling horn. “So beautiful,” she mused. “So cunningly wrought. ”

  She turned back to us all. “Mark how last year’s vine twined about her tail tip. See how deeply she lies in the fallen leaves of a score of years. Or perhaps a score of scores. Yet each tiny scale still gleams, so perfectly fashioned is she!”

  Starling and Kettricken started forward with exclamations of wonder and delight, and were soon crouched by the sculpture, calling each other’s attention to crafted detail after detail. The individual scales of each wing, the fluidly graceful looping of the tail coils and every other marvel of the artist’s design were admired. Yet while they pointed and touched so avidly, the wolf and I held back. Hackles stood up all along Nighteyes’ back. He did not growl; instead he gave a whine so high it was almost like a whistle. After a moment, I realized the Fool had not joined the others. I turned to find him regarding it from afar, as a miser might look on a pile of gold larger even than his dreams. There was the same sort of wideness to his eyes. Even his pale cheeks seemed to hold a rosy flush.

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  “Fitz, come and see! It is only cold stone, carved so well as to appear alive. And look! There is another, with the antlers of a stag and the face of a man!” Kettricken lifted a hand to point and I glimpsed yet another figure sprawled sleeping on the forest floor. They all departed the first effigy to regard this new one, exclaiming anew over the beauty and details of it.

  I moved myself forward on leaden feet, the wolf pressed tightly to my side. When I stood next to the horned one, I could see for myself the fuzzy sac of spiderwebs affixed in the hollow of one hoofed foot. The creature’s ribs did not move with the pumping of any lungs, nor did I feel any body warmth at all. I finally forced myself to set a hand to the cold, carved stone. “It’s a statue,” I said aloud, as if to force myself to believe what my Wit-sense denied. I looked around me, past the stag-man that Starling still admired, to where Kettle and Kettricken stood smiling by yet another sculpture. Its boarlike body sprawled on its side, and the tusks that protruded from its snout were as long as I was tall. In all ways it resembled the forest pig that Nighteyes had killed, save for its immense size and the wings tucked close to its side.

  “I spy at least a dozen of these things,” the Fool announced. “And, behind those trees, I found another carved column such as we have seen before. ” He set a curious hand to the skin of the sculpture, then almost winced away at the cold contact.

  “I cannot believe they are lifeless stone,” I told him.

  “I, too, have never seen such realistic detail in a carving,” he agreed.

  I did not try to tell him he had misunderstood me. Instead, I stood pondering a thing. Here, I sensed l
ife, but there was only cold stone under my hand. It had been the opposite with Forged ones; savage life obviously motivated their bodies, yet my Wit-sense regarded them as but cold stone. I groped for some sort of connection but found only the odd comparison.

  I glanced about me but found my companions scattered throughout the forest, moving from sculpture to sculpture, and calling to one another in delight as they discovered new ones under clambering ivy or engulfed in fallen leaves. I drifted after them slowly. It seemed to me that this might be the destination marked on the map. It almost certainly was, if the old mapmaker had had his scale correct. And yet, why? What was important about these statues? The significance of the city I had seen at once; it might have been the original habitation of the Elderlings. But this?

  I hastened after Kettricken. I found her by a winged bull. He slept, legs folded under him, powerful shoulders bunched, heavy muzzle dropped to his knees. It was a perfect replica of a bull in every way, from its wide sweep of horns to its tufted tail. His cloven hooves were buried beneath the forest loam, but I did not doubt they were there. She had stretched her arms wide to span the sweep of his horns. Like all the others, he had wings, folded in repose on his wide black back.

  “May I see the map?” I asked her, and she started out of her reverie.

  “I’ve already checked it,” she told me quietly. “I am convinced this is the marked area. We passed the remains of two stone bridges. That corresponds to what is shown on the map. And the marking on the column the Fool found corresponds to one you copied in the city for this destination. I think we are on what was once the shore of a lake. That is how I’ve been reading the map, anyway. ”

  “The shores of a lake. ” I nodded to myself as I considered what Verity’s map had shown me. “Perhaps. Perhaps it silted in and became swamp. But then, what do all these statues signify?”

  She made a vague gesture around at the forest. “A garden or park of some kind, perhaps?”

  I looked around us and shook my head. “Not like any garden I’ve ever seen. The statues seem random. Should not a garden possess unity and theme? At least, so Patience taught me. Here I see only sprawled statues, with no sign of paths or beds or . . . Kettricken? Are all the statues of sleeping creatures?”

 
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