Assassins quest, p.83
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       Assassins Quest, p.83

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 
The girl on a dragon seemed more quiescent this morning, but perhaps I was merely becoming more accustomed to the trapped Wit-unrest I sensed there. The Fool did not hesitate, but immediately clambered up on the dais beside the statue. I followed more slowly. “She looks different to me today,” I said quietly.

  “How?”

  “I can’t say. ” I studied her bent head, the stone tears frozen on her cheeks. “Does she look different to you?”

  “I didn’t really look at her that closely yesterday. ”

  Now that we were actually here, the Fool’s banter seemed dampened. Very gingerly, I set a hand to the dragon’s back. The individual scales were so cunningly worked, the curve of the beast’s body so natural that I almost expected it to heave with breath. It was cold, hard stone. I held my breath, daring myself, then quested toward the stone. It felt unlike any questing I had ever done before. There was no beating heart, no rush of breath, nor any other physical sign of life to guide me. There was only my Wit-sense of life, trapped and desperate. For a moment it eluded me; then I brushed against it, and it quested back to me. It sought the feel of wind on skin, the warm pumping of blood, oh, the scents of the summer day, the sensation of my clothing against my skin, any and all that was part of the experience of living it hungered for. I snatched my hand back, frightened by the intensity of its reaching. Almost I thought it might draw me in to join it there.

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  “Strange,” whispered the Fool, for linked to me as he was, he felt the ripples of my experience. His eyes met mine and held for some time. Then he reached a single bare silver fingertip toward the girl.

  “We should not do this,” I said, but there was no force in my words. The slender figure astride the dragon was dressed in a sleeveless jerkin, leggings and sandals. The Fool touched his finger to her upper arm.

  A Skill-scream of pain and outrage filled the quarry. The Fool was flung backward off the pedestal, to land hard on his back on the rock below. He sprawled there senseless. My knees buckled under me and I fell beside the dragon. From the torrent of Wit-anger I felt, I expected the creature to trample me underfoot like a maddened horse. Instinctively I curled up, my arms sheltering my head.

  It was done in an instant, yet the echoes of that cry seemed to rebound endlessly from the slick black stone walls and blocks all around us. I was shakily clambering down to check on the Fool when Nighteyes came rushing up to us. What was that? Who threatens us? I knelt by the Fool. He had struck his head and blood was leaking onto the black stone, but I didn’t think that was why he was unconscious. “I knew we shouldn’t have done it. Why did I let you do it?” I asked myself as I gathered him up to take him back to camp.

  “Because you’re a bigger fool than he is. And I am the biggest of all, to have left you alone and trusted you to act with sense. What did he do?” Kettle was still puffing from her hurry.

  “He touched the girl on the dragon. With the Skill on his finger. ”

  I glanced up at the statue as I spoke. To my horror, there was a bright silver fingerprint on the girl’s upper arm, outlined in scarlet against her bronze-toned flesh. Kettle followed my gaze and I heard her gasp. She spun on me and lifted her gnarled hand as if to strike me. Then she clenched her hand into a contorted fist that trembled and forced it down by her side. “Is it not enough that she is trapped there in misery forever, alone and cut off from all she once loved? You two must come to give her pain on top of all that! How could you be so vicious?”

  “We meant no harm. We did not know . . . ”

  “Ignorance is always the excuse used by the cruelly curious!” Kettle snarled.

  My own temper suddenly rose to match hers. “Don’t rebuke me with my ignorance, woman, when all you have done is refuse to lift it for me. You hint and warn and give us ominous words, but you refuse to speak anything that might help us. And when we make mistakes, you rail at us, saying we should have known better. How? How can we know better when the one who does refuses to share her knowledge with us?”

  In my arms, the Fool stirred faintly. The wolf had been prowling about my feet. Now he came back with a whine to sniff at the Fool’s dangling hand.

  Careful! Don’t let his fingers touch you!

  What bit him?

  I don’t know. “I don’t know anything,” I said aloud, bitterly. “I’m blundering in the dark, hurting everyone I care about in the process. ”

  “I dare not interfere,” Kettle shouted at me. “What if some word of mine set you on the wrong course? What of all the prophecies then? You must find your own way, Catalyst. ”

  The Fool opened his eyes to look at me blankly. Then he closed them again and leaned his head on my shoulder. He was starting to get heavy and I needed to find out what was wrong with him. I shrugged him up more firmly in my arms. I saw Starling coming up behind Kettle, her arms laden with wet laundry. I turned and walked away from them both. As I headed back to camp with the Fool, I said over my shoulder, “Maybe that is why you are here. Maybe you were called here, with a part to play. Maybe it is lifting our ignorance so we can fulfill this bedamned prophecy of yours. And maybe keeping your silence is how you will thwart it. But,” and I halted to fling the words savagely over my shoulder, “I think you keep silent for reasons of your own. Because you are ashamed!”

  I turned away from the stricken look on her face. I covered my shame to have spoken to her so with my anger. It gave me new strength of purpose. I was suddenly determined that I was going to start making everyone behave as they should. It was the sort of childish resolution that often got me into trouble, but once my heart had seized hold of it, my anger gripped it tight.

  I carried the Fool into the big tent and laid him out on his bedding. I took a ragged sleeve off what remained of a shirt, damped it in cool water, and applied it firmly to the back of his head. When the bleeding slowed, I checked it. It was not a large cut, but it was on top of a respectable lump. I still felt that was not why he had fainted. “Fool?” I said to him quietly, then more insistently, “Fool?” I patted his face with water. He came awake with a simple opening of his eyes. “Fool?”

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  “I’ll be all right, Fitz,” he said wanly. “You were right. I should not have touched her. But I did. And I shall never be able to forget it. ”

  “What happened?” I demanded.

  He shook his head. “I can’t talk about it just yet,” he said quietly.

  I shot to my feet, head slapping against the tent roof and nearly bringing the whole structure down around me. “No one in this whole company can talk about anything!” I declared furiously. “Except me. And I intend to talk about everything. ”

  I left the Fool leaning up on one elbow and staring after me. I don’t know if his expression was amused or aghast. I didn’t care. I strode from the tent, scrabbled up the pile of tailings to the pedestal where Verity carved his dragon. The steady scrape, scrape, scrape of his sword point against the stone was like a rasp against my soul. Kettricken sat by him, hollow-eyed and silent. Neither paid me the slightest bit of attention.

  I halted a moment and got my breathing under control. I swept my hair back from my face and tied my warrior’s tail afresh, brushed off my leggings and tugged the stained remnants of my shirt straight. I took three steps forward. My formal bow included Kettricken.

  “My lord, King Verity. My lady, Queen Kettricken. I have come to conclude my reporting to the King. If you would allow it. ”

  I had honestly expected both of them to ignore me. But King Verity’s sword scraped twice more then ceased. He looked at me over his shoulder. “Continue, FitzChivalry. I shall not cease my work, but I shall listen. ”

  There was grave courtesy in his voice. It heartened me. Kettricken suddenly sat up straighter. She brushed the straggling hair back from her eyes, then nodded her permission at me. I drew a deep breath and began, reporting as I had been taught, everything that I had seen o
r done since my visit to the ruined city. Sometime during that long telling, the scraping of the sword slowed, then ceased. Verity moved ponderously to take a seat beside Kettricken. Almost he started to take her hand in his, then stopped himself and folded his own hands before him. But Kettricken saw that small gesture, and moved a trifle closer to him. They sat side by side, my threadbare monarchs, throned on cold rock, a stone dragon at their backs, and listened to me.

  By one and by two, the others came to join us. First the wolf, then the Fool and Starling, and finally old Kettle ranged themselves in a half circle behind me. When my throat began to grow dry and my voice to rasp, Kettricken lifted a hand and sent Starling for water. She returned with tea and meat for all of us. I took but a mouthful of the tea and went on while they picnicked around me.

  I held to my resolution and spoke plainly of all, even that which shamed me. I did not leave out my fears nor foolishness. I told him how I had killed Regal’s guard without warning, even giving him the name of the man I had recognized. Nor did I skirt about my Wit-experiences as I once would have. I spoke as bluntly as if it were only Verity and me, telling him of my fears for Molly and my child, including my fear that if Regal did not find and kill them, Chade would take the child for the throne. As I spoke, I reached for Verity in every way I could, not just my voice, but Wit and Skill, I tried to touch him and reawaken him to who he was. I know he felt that reaching, but try as I might, I could stir no response from him.

  I finished by recounting what the Fool and I had done with the girl on a dragon. I watched Verity’s face for any change of expression, but there was none I could see. When I had told him all, I stood silent before him, hoping he would question me. The old Verity would have taken me over my whole tale again, asking questions about every event, asking what I had thought, or suspected, of anything I had observed. But this gray-headed old man only nodded several times. He made as if to rise.

  “My king!” I begged him desperately.

  “What is it, boy?”

  “Have you nothing to ask me, nothing to tell me?”

  He looked at me, but I was not sure he was really seeing me. He cleared his throat. “I killed Carrod with the Skill. That is true. I have not felt the others since then, but I do not believe they are dead, but only that I have lost the Skill to sense them. You must be careful. ”

  I gaped at him. “And that is all? I must be careful?” His words had chilled me to the bone.

  “No. There is worse. ” He glanced at the Fool. “I fear that when you speak to the Fool, he listens with Regal’s ears. I fear it was Regal who came to you that day, speaking with the Fool’s tongue, to ask you where Molly was. ”

  My mouth went dry. I turned to look at the Fool. He looked stricken. “I do not recall . . . I never said . . . ” He took a half-breath, then suddenly toppled to one side in a faint.

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  Kettle scrabbled over to him. “He breathes,” she told us.

  Verity nodded. “I suspect they have abandoned him then. Perhaps. Do not trust that is true. ” His eyes came back to me. I was trying to remain standing. I had felt it as they fled the Fool. Felt it like a silk thread abruptly parting. They had not had a strong hold on him, but it had been enough. Enough to make me reveal all they needed to kill my wife and child. Enough to ransack his dreams each night since then, stealing whatever was of use to them.

  I went to the Fool. I took his un-Skilled hand and reached for him. Slowly his eyes opened and he sat up. For a time he stared at us all without comprehension. His eyes came back to mine, shame washing through their smoky depths. “ “And the one who loves him best shall betray him most foully. ’ My own prophecy. I have known that since my eleventh year. Chade, I had told myself, when he was willing to take your child. Chade was your betrayer. ” He shook his head sadly. “But it was me. It was me. ” He got slowly to his feet. “I am sorry. So sorry. ”

  I saw the start of tears on his face. Then he turned and walked slowly away from us. I could not bring myself to go after him, but Nighteyes rose soundlessly and trailed at his heels.

  “FitzChivalry. ” Verity took a breath, then spoke quietly. “Fitz, I will try to finish my dragon. It is really all I can do. I only hope it will be enough. ”

  Despair made me bold. “My king, will not you do this for me? Will not you Skill a warning to Burrich and Molly, that they may flee Capelin Beach before they are found?”

  “Oh, my boy,” he said pityingly. He took a step toward me. “Even if I dared to, I fear I have not the strength any more. ” He lifted his eyes and looked at each of us in turn. His gaze lingered longest on Kettricken. “It all fails me. My body, my mind, and my Skill. I am so tired, and there is so little left of me. When I killed Carrod, my Skill fled me. My work has been greatly slowed since then. Even the raw power on my hands weakens, and the pillar is closed to me; I cannot pass through it to renew the magic. I fear I may have defeated myself. I fear I will not be able to complete my task. In the end, I may fail you all. All of you, and the entire Six Duchies. ”

  Kettricken bowed her face into her hands. I thought she would weep. But when she lifted her eyes again, I saw the strength of her love for the man shining through whatever else she felt. “If this is what you believe you must do, then let me help you. ” She gestured at the dragon. “There must be something I can do to help you complete it. Show me where to cut stone away, and then you can work the details. ”

  He shook his head sadly. “Would that you could. But I must do it myself. It all must be done by me. ”

  Kettle suddenly surged to her feet. She came to stand beside me, giving me a glare as if everything were all my fault. “My lord, King Verity,” she began. She seemed to lose courage for a moment, then spoke again louder. “My king, you are mistaken. Few dragons were created by a single person. At least, not the Six Duchies dragons. Whatever the others, the true Elderlings could do on their own, I do not know. But I know that those dragons that were made by Six Duchies hands were most often made by an entire coterie working together, not a single person. ”

  Verity stared at her mutely. Then, “What are you saying?” he demanded in a shaking voice.

  “I am saying what I know. Regardless of how others may come to think of me. ” She gave one glance around at us, as if bidding us farewell. Then she put her back to us and addressed only the King. “My lord king. I name myself Kestrel of Buck, once of Stanchion’s Coterie. But by my Skill I did slay a member of my own coterie, for jealousy over a man. To do so was high treason, for we were the Queen’s own strength. And I destroyed that. For this I was punished as the Queen’s Justice saw fit. My Skill was burned out of me, leaving me as you see me; sealed into myself, unable to reach beyond the walls of my own body, unable to receive the touch of those I had held dear. That was done by my own coterie. For the murder itself, the Queen banished me from the Six Duchies, for all time. She sent me away so that no Skilled one would be tempted to take pity on me and try to free me. She said she could imagine no worse punishment, that one day in my isolation I would long for death. ” Kettle sank slowly to her old knees on the hard stone. “My king, my queen, she was right. I ask your mercy now. Either put me to death. Or . . . ” Very slowly she lifted her head. “Or use your strength to reopen me to the Skill. And I will serve you as coterie in the carving of this dragon. ”

  All was silence for a time. When Verity spoke, it was in confusion. “I know of no Stanchion’s Coterie. ”

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  Kettle’s voice shook as she admitted, “I destroyed it, my lord. There were but five of us. My act left only three alive to the Skill, and they had experienced the physical death of one member and the . . . burning of myself. They were greatly weakened. I heard that they were released from their service to the Queen, and sought the road that once began in Jhaampe town. They never returned, but I do not think they survived the rigors of this road. I do not think they ever made
a dragon such as we once used to dream about. ”

  When Verity spoke, he did not seem to be replying to her words. “Neither my father nor either of his wives had coteries sworn to them. Nor my grandmother. ” His brow wrinkled. “Which queen did you serve, woman?”

  “Queen Diligence, my king,” Kettle said quietly. She was still kneeling on the hard stone.

  “Queen Diligence reigned over two hundred years ago,” Verity observed.

  “She died two hundred twenty-three years ago,” Starling interposed.

  “Thank you, minstrel,” Verity said dryly. “Two hundred twenty-three years ago. And you would have me believe you were coterie to her. ”

  “I was, my lord. I had turned my Skill upon myself, for I wished to keep my youth and beauty. It was not regarded as an admirable thing to do, but most Skilled ones did it to some extent. It took me over a year to master my body. But what I had done, I did well. To this day, I heal swiftly. Most illnesses pass me by. ” She could not keep a note of pride from her voice.

  “The legendary longevity of the coterie members,” King Verity observed softly to himself. He sighed. “There must have been much in Solicity’s books that Chivalry and I were never made privy to. ”

  “A great deal. ” Kettle spoke with more confidence now. “It amazes me that, with as little training as you and FitzChivalry have, you have managed to come this far alone. And to carve a dragon alone? It is a feat for a song. ”

  Verity glanced back at her. “Oh, come, woman, sit down. It pains me to see you kneel. Obviously there is much you can and should tell me. ” He shifted restlessly and glanced back at his dragon. “But while we are talking, I am not working. ”

  “Then I shall say to you only what needs most to be said,” Kettle offered. She clambered painfully to her feet. “I was powerful in the Skill. Strong enough to kill with it, as few are. ” Her voice halted, thickening. She took a breath and resumed. “That power is still within me. One strongly Skilled enough could open me to it again. I believe you have that strength. Though right now, you may not be able to master it. You have killed with the Skill, and that is a heinous thing. Even though the coterie member was not true to you, still, you had worked together. In killing him, you killed a part of yourself. And that is why you feel you have no Skill left to you. Had I my Skill, I could help you heal yourself. ”

 
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