Assassins quest, p.80
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       Assassins Quest, p.80

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  I think that was what broke her, to discover that her earthshaking tidings did not anger nor sorrow him, but only confused him. She had to feel betrayed. Her desperate flight from Buckkeep Castle and all the hardships she had endured to protect her unborn child, the long lonely months of her pregnancy, culminating in the heartrending stillbirth of her child, and her dread that she must tell her lord how she had failed him: that had been her reality for the past year. And now she stood before her husband and her king, and he fumbled to recall her and of the dead child said only “Oh. ” I felt shamed for this doddering old man who peered at the Queen and smiled so wearily.

  Kettricken did not scream or weep. She simply turned and walked slowly away. I sensed great control in that passage, and great anger. Starling, crouched by Kettle, looked up at the Queen as she passed. She started to rise and follow, but Kettricken made a tiny movement of her hand that forbade it. Alone she descended from the great stone dais and strode off.

  Go with her?

  Please. But do not bother her.

  I am not stupid.

  Nighteyes left me, to shadow off after Kettricken. Despite my caution to him, I knew he went straight to her, to come up beside her and press his great head against her leg. She dropped suddenly to one knee and hugged him, pushing her face against his coat, her tears falling into his rough fur. He turned and licked her hand. Go away, he chided me, and I pulled my awareness back from them. I blinked, realizing I had been staring at Verity all the while. His eyes met mine.

  He cleared his throat. “FitzChivalry,” he said, and drew a breath to speak. Then he let half of it out. “I am so weary,” he said piteously. “And there is still so much to do. ” He gestured at the dragon behind him. Ponderously he sank, to sit beside the statue. “I tried so hard,” he said to no one in particular.

  The Fool recovered his senses before I did mine. “My lord Prince Verity,” he began, then paused. “My king. It is I, the Fool. May I be of service to you?”

  Verity looked up at the slender pale man who stood before him. “I would be honored,” he said after a moment. His head swayed on his neck. “To accept the fealty and service of one who served both my father and my queen so well. ” For an instant I glimpsed something of the old Verity. Then the certainty flickered out of his face again.

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  The Fool advanced and then knelt suddenly beside him. He patted Verity on the shoulder, sending up a small cloud of rock dust. “I will take care of you,” he said. “As I did your father. ” He stood up suddenly and turned to me. “I am going to fetch firewood, and find clean water,” he announced. He glanced past me to the women. “Is Kettle all right?” he asked Starling.

  “She nearly fainted,” Starling began. But Kettle cut in abruptly with, “I was shocked to my core, Fool. And I am in no hurry to stand up. But Starling is free to go do whatever must be done. ”

  “Ah. Good. ” The Fool appeared to have taken complete control of the situation. He sounded as if he were organizing tea. “Then, if you would be so kind, Mistress Starling, would you see to the setting up of the tent? Or two tents, if such a thing can be contrived. See what food we have left, and plan a meal. A generous meal, for I think we all need it. I shall return shortly with firewood, and water. And greens, if I am lucky. ” He cast a quick look at me. “See to the king,” he said in a low voice. Then he strode away. Starling was left gaping. Then she arose and went in search of the straying jeppas. Kettle followed her more slowly.

  And so, after all that time and travel, I was left standing alone before my King. “Come to me,” he had told me, and I had. There was an instant of peace in realizing that that nagging voice was finally stilled. “Well, I am here, my king,” I said quietly, to myself as much as to him.

  Verity made no reply. He had turned his back to me and was busy digging at the statue with his sword. He knelt, clutching the sword by the pommel and by the blade and scraped the tip along the stone at the edge of the dragon’s foreleg. I stepped close to watch him scratching at the black rock of the dais. His face was so intent, his movement so precise that I did not know what to make of it. “Verity, what are you doing?” I asked softly.

  He did not even glance up at me. “Carving a dragon,” he replied.

  Several hours later, he still toiled at the same task. The monotonous scrape, scrape, scrape of the blade against the stone set my teeth on edge and shredded every nerve in my body. I had remained on the dais with him. Starling and the Fool had set up our tent, and a second smaller one cobbled together from our now excess winter blankets. A fire was burning. Kettle presided over a bubbling pot. The Fool was sorting the greens and roots he had gathered while Starling arranged bedding in the tents. Kettricken had rejoined us briefly, but only to get her bow and quiver from the jeppas’ packs. She had announced she was going hunting with Nighteyes. He had given me one lambent glance from his dark eyes, and I had held my tongue.

  I knew but little more than I had when we had first found Verity. His Skill walls were high and tight. I received almost no sense of the Skill from him. What I discovered when I quested toward him was even more unnerving. I grasped the fluttering Wit-sense I had of him, but could not understand it. It was as if his life and awareness fluctuated between his body and the great statue of the dragon. I recalled the last time I had encountered such a thing. It had been between the Wit-man and his bear. They had shared the same flowing of life. I suspected that if anyone had quested toward the wolf and me, they would discover the same sort of pattern. We had shared minds for so long that in some ways we were one creature. But that did not explain to me how Verity could have bonded with a statue, nor why he persisted in scraping at it with his sword. I longed to grab hold of the sword and snatch it from his grasp, but I refrained. In truth, he seemed so obsessed with what he did that I almost feared to interrupt him.

  Earlier I had tried asking him questions. When I asked him what had become of those who left with him, he had shaken his head slowly. “They harried us as a flock of crows will haunt an eagle. Coming close, squawking and pecking, and fleeing when we turned to attack them. ”

  “Crows?” I had asked him, blankly.

  He shook his head at my stupidity. “Hired soldiers. They shot at us from cover. They came at us at night, sometimes. And some of my men were baffled by the coterie’s Skill. I could not shield the minds of those who were susceptible. Night fears they sent to stalk them, and suspicion of one another. So I bid them go back; I pressed my own Skill-command into their minds, to save them from any other. ” It was almost the only question he truly answered. Of the others I asked, he did not choose to answer many, and the answers he did give were either inappropriate or evasive. So I gave it up. Instead, I found myself reporting to him. It was a long accounting, for I began with the day I had watched him ride away. Much of what I told him, I was sure he already knew, but I repeated it anyway. If his mind was wandering, as I feared, it might anchor him to refresh his memory. And if my king’s mind was as sharp as ever beneath this dusty demeanor, then it could not hurt for all the events to be put in perspective and order. I could think of no other way to reach him.

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  I had begun it, I think, to try to make him realize all we had gone through to be here. Also, I wished to awaken him to what was happening in his kingdom while he loitered here with his dragon. Perhaps I hoped to wake in him some sense of responsibility for his folk again. As I spoke, he seemed dispassionate, but occasionally he would nod gravely, as if I had confirmed some secret fear of his. And all the time the sword tip moved against the black stone, scrape, scrape, scrape.

  It was verging on full dark when I heard the scuff of Kettle’s footsteps behind me. I paused in recounting my adventures in the ruined city and turned to look at her. “I’ve brought you both some hot tea,” she announced.

  “Thank you,” I said, and took my mug from her, but Verity only glanced up fro
m his perpetual scraping.

  For a time, Kettle stood proffering the cup to Verity. When she spoke, it was not to remind him of tea. “What are you doing?” she asked in a gentle voice.

  The scraping stopped abruptly. He turned to stare at her, then glanced at me as if to see if I, too, had heard her ridiculous question. The querying look I wore seemed to amaze him. He cleared his throat. “I am carving a dragon. ”

  “With your sword blade?” she asked. In her tone was curiosity, no more.

  “Only the rough parts,” he told her. “For the finer work, I use my knife. And then, for finest of all, my fingers and nails. ” He turned his head slowly, surveying the immense statue. “I would like to say it is nearly done,” he said falteringly. “But how can I say that when there is still so much to do? So very much to do . . . and I fear it will all be too late. If it is not already too late. ”

  “Too late for what?” I asked him, my voice as gentle as Kettle’s had been.

  “Why . . . too late to save the folk of the Six Duchies. ” He peered at me as if I were simple. “Why else would I be doing it? Why else would I leave my land and my queen, to come here?”

  I tried to grasp what he was telling me, but one overwhelming question popped out of my mouth. “You believe you have carved this whole dragon?”

  Verity considered. “No. Of course not. ” But just as I felt relief that he was not completely mad, he added, “It isn’t finished yet. ” He looked again over his dragon with the fondly proud look he had once reserved for his best maps. “But even this much has taken me a long time. A very long time. ”

  “Won’t you drink your tea while it’s hot, sir?” Kettle asked, once more proffering the cup.

  Verity looked at it as if it were a foreign object. Then he took it gravely from her hand. “Tea. I had almost forgotten about tea. Not elfbark, is it? Eda’s mercy, how I hated that bitter brew!”

  Kettle almost winced to hear him speak of it. “No, sir, no elfbark, I promise you. It is made from wayside herbs, I’m afraid. Mostly nettle, and a bit of mint. ”

  “Nettle tea. My mother used to give us nettle tea as a spring tonic. ” He smiled to himself. “I will put that in my dragon. My mother’s nettle tea. ” He took a sip of it, and then looked startled. “It’s warm . . . it has been so long since I had time to eat anything warm. ”

  “How long?” Kettle asked him conversationally.

  “A . . . long time,” Verity said. He took another sip of the tea. “There are fish in a stream, outside the quarry. But it is hard enough to take time to catch them, let alone cook them. Actually, I forget. I have put so many things into the dragon . . . perhaps that was one of them. ”

  “And how long since you slept?” Kettle pressed him.

  “I cannot both work and sleep,” he pointed out to her. “And the work must be done. ”

  “And the work shall be done,” she promised him. “But tonight you will pause, just for a bit, to eat and drink. And then to sleep. See? Look down there. Starling has made you a tent, and within it will be warm, soft bedding. And warmed water, to wash yourself. And such fresh clothing as we can manage. ”

  He looked down at his silvered hands. “I do not know if I can wash myself,” he confided to her.

  “Then FitzChivalry and the Fool will help you,” she promised him blithely.

  “Thank you. That would be good. But . . . ” His eyes went afar for a time. “Kettricken. Was not she here, a while ago? Or did I dream her? So much of her was what was strongest, so I put it into the dragon. I think that is what I have missed the most, of all I have put there. ” He paused and then added, “At the times when I can recall what I miss. ”

  “Kettricken is here,” I assured him. “She has gone hunting, but she will return soon. Would you like to be washed and freshly clothed when she returns?” I had privately resolved to respond to the parts of his conversation that made sense, and not upset him by questioning the other parts.

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  “That one sees past such things,” he told me, a shade of pride in his voice. “Still, it would be nice . . . but there is so much work to do. ”

  “But it is getting too dark to work any more today. Wait until tomorrow. It will get done,” Kettle assured him. “Tomorrow, I will help you. ”

  Verity shook his head slowly. He sipped more of the tea. Even that thin beverage seemed to be strengthening him. “No,” he said quietly. “I am afraid you cannot. I must do it myself, you see. ”

  “Tomorrow, you will see. I think, if you have strength enough by then, then it may be possible for me to help you. But we shall not worry about it until then. ”

  He sighed and offered the empty mug back to her. Instead, she quickly gripped his upper arm and drew him to his feet. She was strong for such an old woman. She did not seek to take the sword from his grasp, but he let it fall. I stooped to gather it up. He followed Kettle docilely, as if her simple act of taking his arm had deprived him of all will. As I followed, I ran my eyes down the blade that had been Hod’s pride. I wondered what had possessed Verity to take such a kingly weapon and turn it into a rock-carving tool. The edges were turned and notched from the misuse, the tip no more pointed than a spoon. The sword was much like the man, I reflected, and followed them down to the camp.

  When we got down to the fireside, I was almost shocked to see that Kettricken had returned. She sat by the fire, staring dispassionately into it. Nighteyes lay almost across her feet. His ears pricked toward me as I approached the fire, but he made no move to leave the Queen.

  Kettle guided Verity directly to the makeshift tent that had been pitched for him. She nodded to the Fool, and without a word he took up a steaming basin of water from beside the fire and followed her. When I ventured to enter the tiny tent also, the Fool shooed both me and Kettle away. “He will not be the first king I have tended to,” he reminded us. “Trust him to me. ”

  “Touch not his hands nor forearms!” Kettle warned him sternly. The Fool looked a bit taken aback by that, but after a moment he gave a bobbing nod of agreement. As I left he was untying the much-knotted thong that closed Verity’s worn jerkin, speaking all the while of inconsequential things. I heard Verity observe, “I have missed Charim so. I should never have let him come with me, but he had served me so long . . . He died slowly, with much pain. That was hard for me, watching him die. But, he, too, has gone into the dragon. It was necessary. ”

  I felt awkward when I returned to the fire. Starling was stirring the pot of stew that was bubbling merrily. A large chunk of meat on a spit was dripping fat into the fire, making the flames leap and hiss. The smell of it reminded me of my hunger so that my belly growled. Kettle was standing, her back to the fire, staring off into darkness. Kettricken’s eyes flickered toward me.

  “So,” I said suddenly, “How was the hunting?”

  “As you see,” Kettricken said softly. She gestured at the pot, and then tossed a hand casually to indicate a butchered out wood sow. I stepped over to admire it. It was not a small animal.

  “Dangerous prey,” I observed, trying to sound casual rather than horrified that my queen would take on such a beast alone.

  “It was what I needed to hunt,” she said, her voice still soft. I understood her only too well.

  It was very good hunting. Never have I taken so much meat with so little effort, Nighteyes told me. He rubbed the side of his head against her leg in true affection. She dropped a hand to pull gently at his ears. He groaned in pleasure and leaned heavily against her.

  “You’ll spoil him,” I mock-warned her. “He tells me he has never taken so much meat with so little effort. ”

  “He is so intelligent. I swear, he drove the game toward me. And he has courage. When my first arrow did not drop her, he held her at bay while I nocked another one to my bow. ” She spoke as if she had nothing else on her mind but this. I nodded to her words, content to let our conversation be thus.
But she suddenly asked me, “What is wrong with him?”

  I knew she did not speak of the wolf. “I am not sure,” I said gently. “He has known a great deal of privation. Perhaps enough to . . . weaken his mind. And . . . ”

  “No. ” Kettle’s voice was brusque. “That is not it at all. Though I will grant you he is weary. Any man would be, to do what he has done alone. But—”

  “You cannot believe he has carved that whole dragon himself!” I interrupted her.

  “I do,” the old woman replied with certainty. “It is as he told you. He must do it himself, and so he has done it. ” She shook her head slowly. “Never have I heard such a thing. Even King Wisdom had the help of his coterie, or what was left of it when he reached here. ”

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  “No one could have carved that statue with a sword,” I said stubbornly. What she was saying was nonsense.

  For answer, she rose and stalked off into the darkness. When she returned, she dropped two objects at my feet. One had been a chisel, once. Its head was peened over into a lump, its blade gone to nothing. The other was an ancient iron mallet head, with a relatively new wooden handle set into it. “There are others, scattered about. He probably found them in the city. Or discarded hereabouts,” she observed before I could ask the question.

  I stared at the battered tools, and considered all the months that Verity had been gone. For this? For the carving of a stone dragon?

  “I don’t understand,” I said faintly.

  Kettle spoke clearly, as if I were slow. “He has been carving a dragon, and storing all his memories in it. That is part of why he seems so vague. But there is more. I believe he used the Skill to kill Carrod, and has taken grievous hurt in so doing. ” She shook her head sadly. “To have come so close to finishing, and then to be defeated. I wonder how sly Regal’s coterie is. Did they send one against him, knowing that if Verity killed with the Skill, he might defeat himself?”

  “I do not think any of that coterie would willingly sacrifice himself. ”

  Kettle smiled bitterly. “I did not say he was willingly sent. Nor did I say he knew what his fellows intended. It is like the game of stones, FitzChivalry. One plays each stone to best advantage in the game. The object is to win, not to hoard one’s stones. ”

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