Assassins quest, p.81
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       Assassins Quest, p.81

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb


  Girl on a Dragon

  EARLY IN OUR resistance to the Red Ships, before anyone in the Six Duchies had begun to call it a war, King Shrewd and Prince Verity realized that the task facing them was overwhelming. No individual man, no matter how Skilled, could stand alone to fend the Red Ships from our coasts. King Shrewd summoned before him Galen, the Skillmaster, and directed him to create for Verity a coterie to aid the prince’s efforts. Galen resisted this idea, especially when he found that one of those he must train was a royal bastard. The Skillmaster declared that none of the students presented to him were worthy of training. But King Shrewd insisted, telling him to make the best of them that he could. When Galen grudgingly gave in, he created the coterie that bore his name.

  It soon became apparent to Prince Verity that the coterie, while internally cohesive, did not work well with the prince at all. By then Galen had died, leaving Buckkeep with no successor to the post of Skillmaster. In desperation, Verity sought for others trained in the Skill who might come to his aid. Although there had been no coteries created in the peaceful years of King Shrewd’s reign, Verity reasoned that there might still live men and women trained for coteries before that. Had not the longevity of coterie members always been legendary? Perhaps he could find one who would either help him, or be able to train others in the Skill.

  But Prince Verity’s efforts in this area availed him nothing. Those he could identify as Skill users from records and word of mouth were all either dead, or mysteriously vanished. So Prince Verity was left to wage his war alone.

  Before I could press Kettle to clarify her answers, there was a cry from Verity’s tent. Every one of us jumped, but Kettle was the first to the tent flap. The Fool emerged, gripping his left wrist in his right hand. He went straight to the water bucket and plunged in his hand. His face was contorted with either pain or fear, perhaps both. Kettle stalked after him to peer at the hand he gripped.

  She shook her head in disgust. “I warned you! Here, take it out of the water, it won’t do it any good. Nothing will do it any good. Stop. Think about it. It’s not really pain, it’s just a sensation you’ve never felt before. Take a breath. Relax. Accept it. Accept it. Breathe deep, breathe deep. ”

  All the while she spoke, she tugged at the Fool’s arm until he reluctantly drew his hand from the water. Kettle immediately overset the bucket with her foot. She scuffed rock dust and gravel over the spilled water, all the while gripping the Fool’s arm. I craned my neck to peer past her. His first three fingers on his left hand were now tipped with silver. He looked at them with a shudder. I had never seen the Fool so unnerved.

  Kettle spoke firmly. “It won’t wash off. It won’t wipe off. It’s with you now, so accept it. Accept it. ”

  “Does it hurt?” I asked anxiously.

  “Don’t ask him that!” Kettle snapped at me. “Don’t ask him anything just now. See to the King, FitzChivalry, and leave the Fool to me. ”

  In my worry over the Fool, I had all but forgotten my king. I stooped to enter the tent. Verity sat on two folded blankets. He was struggling to lace up one of my shirts. I deduced that Starling had ransacked all the packs to find clean clothes for him. It smote me to see him so thin that one of my shirts fit him.

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  “Allow me, my king,” I suggested.

  He not only dropped his hands away, he put them behind his back. “Is the Fool much hurt?” he asked me as I fought with the knotted strings. He sounded almost like my old Verity.

  “Just three fingertips are silvered,” I told him. I saw that the Fool had laid out a brush and thong. I stepped behind Verity, and began to brush his hair back. He hastily snatched his hands around in front of him. Some of the gray in his hair had been rock dust, but not all. His warrior’s queue was now gray with black streaks in it and coarse as a horse’s tail. I struggled to smooth it back. As I tied the thong I asked him, “What does it feel like?”

  “These?” he asked, holding up his hands and waggling the fingers. “Oh. Like Skill. Only more so, and on my hands and arms. ”

  I saw he thought he had answered my question. “Why did you do it?” I asked.

  “Well, to work the stone, you know. When this power is on my hands, the stone must obey the Skill. Extraordinary stone. Like the Witness Stones in Buck, did you know that? Only they are not nearly as pure as what is here. Of course, hands are poor tools for working stone. But once you have cut away all the excess, down to where the dragon waits, then he can be awakened with your touch. I draw my hands over the stone, and I recall to it the dragon. And all that is not dragon shivers away in shards and chips. Very slowly, of course. It took a whole day just to reveal his eyes. ”

  “I see,” I murmured, at a loss. I did not know whether he was mad or if I believed him.

  He stood up as far as he could in the low tent. “Is Kettricken angry with me?” he asked abruptly.

  “My lord king, it is not for me to say . . . ”

  “Verity,” he interrupted wearily. “Call me Verity, and for Eda’s sake, answer the question, Fitz. ”

  He sounded so like his old self I wanted to embrace him. Instead, I said, “I do not know if she is angry. She is definitely hurt. She came a long and weary way to find you, bearing terrible news. And you did not seem to care. ”

  “I care, when I think of it,” he said gravely. “When I think of it, I grieve. But there are so many things I must think of, and I cannot think of them all at once. I knew when the child died, Fitz. How could I not know? He, too, and all I felt, I have put into the dragon. ”

  He walked slowly away from me, and I followed him out of the tent. Outside, he stood up straight, but did not lose the stoop in his shoulders. Verity was an old man now, far older than Chade somehow. I did not understand that, but I knew it was true. Kettricken glanced up at his approach. She looked back into the fire, and then, almost unwillingly she stood, stepping clear of the sleeping wolf. Kettle and Starling were binding the Fool’s fingers in strips of cloth. Verity went straight to Kettricken and stood beside her. “My queen,” he said gravely. “If I could, I would embrace you. But you have seen that my touch . . . ” He gestured at the Fool and let his words trail away.

  I had seen the look on her face when she had told Verity about the stillbirth. I expected her to turn aside from him, to hurt him as he had hurt her. But Kettricken’s heart was larger than that. “Oh, my husband,” she said, and her voice broke on the words. He held his silvered arms wide, and she came to him, taking him in her embrace. He bowed his gray head over the rough gold of her hair, but could not allow his hand to touch her. He turned his silvered cheek away from her. His voice was husky and broken as he asked her, “Did you give him a name? Our son?”

  “I named him according to the customs of your land. ” She took a breath. The word was so soft I scarce heard it. “Sacrifice,” she breathed. She clung to him tightly and I saw his thin shoulders convulse in a sob.

  “Fitz!” Kettle hissed at me sharply. I turned to find her scowling at me. “Leave them alone,” she whispered. “Make yourself useful. Get a plate for the Fool. ”

  I had been staring at them. I turned away, shamed to have been gawking, but glad to see them embrace, even in sorrow. I did as Kettle had ordered, getting food for myself at the same time. I took the plate to the Fool. He sat cradling his injured hand in his lap.

  He looked up as I sat beside him. “It doesn’t rub off on anything else,” he complained. “Why did it cling to my fingers?”

  “I don’t know. ”

  “Because you’re alive,” Kettle said succinctly. She sat down across from us as if we needed supervising.

  “Verity told me he can shape rock with his fingers because of the Skill on them,” I told her.

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  “Is your tongue hinged in the middle so that it flaps at both ends? You talk too much!” Kettle rebuked me.

/>   “Perhaps I would not talk too much if you spoke a bit more,” I replied. “Rock is not alive. ”

  She looked at me. “You know that, do you? Well, what is the point of my talking when you already know everything?” She attacked her food as if it had done her a personal wrong.

  Starling joined us. She sat down beside me, her plate on her knees and said, “I don’t understand about the silvery stuff on his hands. What is it?”

  The Fool snickered into his plate like a naughty child when Kettle glared at her. But I was getting tired of Kettle’s evasions. “What does it feel like?” I asked the Fool.

  He glanced down at his bandaged fingers. “Not pain. Very sensitive. I can feel the weave of the threads in the bandages. ” His eyes started to get distant. He smiled. “I can see the man who wove it, and I know the woman who spun it. The sheep on the hillside, rain falling on their thick wool, and the grass they ate . . . wool is from grass, Fitz. A shirt woven from grass. No, there is more. The soil, black and rich and . . . ”

  “Stop it!” Kettle said harshly. And she turned to me angrily. “And you stop asking him, Fitz. Unless you want him to follow it too far and be lost forever. ” She gave the Fool a sharp poke. “Eat your food. ”

  “How is it you know so much about the Skill?” Starling suddenly asked her.

  “Not you, too!” Kettle angrily declared. “Is there nothing private anymore?”

  “Among us? Not much,” the Fool replied, but he was not looking at her. He was watching Kettricken, her face still puffy from weeping, as she dished up food for herself and Verity. Her worn and stained clothing, her rough hair and chapped hands and the simple, homely task she performed for her husband should have made her seem like any woman. But I looked at her and saw perhaps the strongest queen that Buckkeep had ever known.

  I watched Verity wince slightly as he took from her hand the simple wooden dish and spoon. He shut his eyes a moment, struggling against the pull of the implement’s history. He composed his face and took a mouthful of food. Even across camp from him, I felt the sudden awakening of plain hunger. It was not just hot food he had been long without, it was solid sustenance of any kind. He took a shuddering breath and began to eat like a starved wolf.

  Kettle was watching him. A look of pity crossed her face. “No. Very little privacy left for any of us,” she said sadly.

  “The sooner we get him back to Jhaampe, the sooner he can get better,” Starling said soothingly. “Should we start tomorrow, do you think? Or give him a few days of food and rest to rebuild his strength?”

  “We shall not be taking him back to Jhaampe,” Kettle said, an undercurrent of sadness in her voice. “He has begun a dragon. He cannot leave it. ” She looked around at us levelly. “The only thing we can do for him now is stay here and help him finish it. ”

  “With Red Ships torching the entire coastline of the Six Duchies and Farrow attacking the Mountains, we should stay here and help the King carve a dragon?” Starling was incredulous.

  “Yes. If we want to save the Six Duchies and the Mountains, that is exactly what we should do. Now, you will excuse me. I think I shall put on more meat to cook. Our king looks as if he could use it. ”

  I set my empty plate aside. “We should probably cook it all. In this weather, meat will sour fast,” I unwisely said.

  I spent the next hour butchering the pig into portions that could dry-cook over the fire all night. Nighteyes awoke and helped dispose of scraps until his belly was distended. Kettricken and Verity sat talking quietly. I tried not to watch them, but even so, I was aware that his gaze frequently strayed from her to the dais where his dragon crouched over us. The low rumble of his voice was hesitant, and often died away altogether until prompted by another question from Kettricken.

  The Fool was amusing himself by touching things with his Skill-fingers: a bowl, a knife, the cloth of his shirt. He met Kettle’s scowls with a benign smile. “I’m being careful,” he told her once.

  “You have no idea of how to be careful,” she complained. “You won’t know you’ve lost your way until you’re gone. ” She got up from our butchery with a grunt and insisted on rebandaging his fingers. After that, she and Starling left together to get more firewood. The wolf got up with a groan and followed them.

  Kettricken helped Verity into the tent. After a moment she reappeared to go into the main tent. She emerged carrying her bedding. She caught my quick glance and abashed me by meeting my eyes squarely. “I have taken your long mittens from your pack, Fitz,” she told me calmly. Then she joined Verity in the smaller tent. The Fool and I looked everywhere except at each other.

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  I went back to my cutting on the meat. I was tired of it. The smell of the pig was suddenly the smell of something dead rather than that of fresh meat and I had smears of sticky blood up to my elbows. The worn cuffs of my shirt were soaked with it. I continued doggedly with my task. The Fool came to crouch beside me.

  “When my fingers brushed Verity’s arm, I knew him,” he said suddenly. “I knew he was a worthy king for me to follow, as worthy as his father before him. I know what he intends,” he added in a lower voice. “It was too much for me to grasp at first, but I have been sitting and thinking. And it fits in with my dream about Realder. ”

  A shiver ran through me that had nothing to do with chill. “What?” I demanded.

  “The dragons are the Elderlings,” the Fool said softly. “But Verity could not wake them. So he carves his own dragon, and when it is finished, he will waken it, and then he will go forth to fight the Red Ships. Alone. ”

  Alone. That word struck me. Once again, Verity expected to fight the Red Ships alone. But there was too much I didn’t quite grasp. “All the Elderlings were dragons?” I asked. My mind went back to all the fanciful drawings and weavings of Elderlings I had ever seen. Some had been dragonlike, but . . .

  “No. The Elderlings are dragons. Those carved creatures back in the stone garden. Those are the Elderlings. King Wisdom was able to wake them in his time, to rouse them and recruit them to his cause. They came to life for him. But now they either sleep too deeply or they are dead. Verity spent much of his strength trying to rouse them in every way he could think of. And when he could not, he decided that he would have to make his own Elderling, and quicken it, and use it to fight the Red Ships. ”

  I sat stunned. I thought of the Wit-life both the wolf and I had sensed crawling through those stones. With a sudden pang, I remembered the trapped anguish of the girl on a dragon statue in this very quarry. Living stone, trapped and flightless forever. I shuddered. It was a different kind of dungeon.

  “How is it done?”

  The Fool shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think Verity himself knows. He blunders toward it, blind and groping. He shapes the stone, and gives it his memories. And when it is finished, it will come to life. I suppose. ”

  “Do you hear what you are saying?” I asked him. “Stone is going to rise and defend the Six Duchies from the Red Ships. And what of Regal’s troops and the border skirmishes with the Mountain Kingdom? Will this “dragon’ drive them off as well?” Slow anger was building in me. “This is what we have come all this way for? For a tale I would not expect a child to believe?”

  The Fool looked mildly affronted. “Believe it or not as you choose. I but know that Verity believes it. Unless I am much mistaken, Kettle believes it as well. Why else would she insist we must stay here, and help Verity complete the dragon?”

  For a time, I pondered this. Then I asked him, “Your dream about Realder’s dragon. What do you recall of it?”

  He gave a helpless shrug. “The feelings of it, mostly. I was exuberant and joyful, for not only was I announcing Realder’s dragon, but he was going to fly me on it. I felt I was a bit in love with him, you know. That sort of lift to the heart. But . . . ” He faltered. “I cannot recall if I loved Realder or his dragon. In my dream, they ar
e mingled . . . I think. Recalling dreams is so hard. One must seize them as soon as one awakes, and quickly repeat them to oneself, to harden the details. Otherwise they fade so quickly. ”

  “But in your dream, did a stone dragon fly?”

  “I was announcing the dragon in my dream, and knew I was to fly upon it. I had not yet seen it, in my dream. ”

  “Then maybe it has nothing to do at all with what Verity does. Perhaps, in the time from which your dream came, there were real dragons, of flesh and blood. ”

  He looked at me curiously. “You do not believe there are real dragons, today?”

  “I have never seen one. ”

  “In the city,” he pointed out quietly.

  “That was a vision of a different time. You said today. ”

  He held one of his own pale hands up to the firelight. “I think they are like my kind. Rare, but not mythical. Besides, if there were no dragons of flesh and blood and fire, whence would come the idea for these stone carvings?”

  I shook my head wearily. “This conversation goes in circles. I am tired of riddles and guesses and beliefs. I want to know what is real. I want to know why we came all this way, and what it is we must do. ”

  But the Fool had no answers to that. When Kettle and Starling got back with the wood, he helped me layer the fire and arrange the meat where the heat would drive the fat from it. What meat we could not set to cook, we bundled aside in the pigskin. There was a sizable pile of bones and scraps. Despite how he had gorged earlier, Nighteyes settled down with a leg bone to gnaw. I surmised he had regurgitated part of his bellyful somewhere.

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  There is no such thing as having too much meat in reserve, he told me contentedly.

  I made a few attempts to needle Kettle into talking to me, but somehow it evolved into a lecture on how much more aware of the Fool I must be now. He must be protected, not only from Regal’s coterie, but from the Skill-pull of objects that might take his mind wandering. For that reason, she wished us to stand our watches together. She insisted the Fool must sleep on his back, his bared fingers upturned so they touched nothing. As the Fool usually slept huddled in a ball, he was not overly pleased. But at last we settled for the night.

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