Assassins quest, p.90
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       Assassins Quest, p.90

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “Wondrously,” he conceded. “But how did you know they’d go after the red-bearded one? That was what persuaded them. And damn near persuaded me as well!”

  She shook her head to herself. “It was luck. And the light. He had the candles and stood before the hearth. The hut was dim. Bees are drawn to light. Almost like moths are. ”

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  “I wonder if they are still inside the hut. ” He grinned as he watched her rise to take away the bloody rag and water.

  “I lost my bees,” she reminded him sadly.

  “We will go burning for more,” Burrich comforted her.

  She shook her head sadly. “A hive that has worked the whole summer makes the most honey. ” At a table in the corner, she took up a roll of clean linen bandaging and a pot of unguent. She sniffed at it thoughtfully. “It doesn’t smell like what you make,” she observed.

  “It will probably work all the same,” he said. A frown creased his brow as he looked slowly around the room. “Molly. How are we to pay for all this?”

  “I’ve taken care of it. ” She kept her back to him.

  “How?” he asked suspiciously.

  When she looked back at him, her mouth was flat. I’d known better than to argue with that face. “Fitz’s pin. I showed it to the innkeeper to get this room. And while you both slept this afternoon, I took it to a jeweler and sold it. ” He had opened his mouth, but she gave him no chance to speak. “I know how to bargain and I got its full worth. ”

  “Its worth was more than coins. Nettle should have had that pin,” Burrich said. His mouth was as flat as hers.

  “Nettle needed a warm bed and porridge far more than she needed a silver pin with a ruby in it. Even Fitz would have had the wisdom to know that. ”

  Oddly enough, I did. But Burrich only said, “I shall have to work many days to earn it back for her. ”

  Molly took up the bandages. She did not meet his eyes. “You are a stubborn man, and I am sure you will do as you please about that,” she said.

  Burrich was silent. I could almost see him trying to decide if that meant he had won the argument. She came back to the bed. She sat beside him on the bed to smear the ointment on his back. He clenched his jaws, but made no sound. Then she came to crouch in front of him. “Lift your arms so I can wrap this,” she commanded him. He took a breath and lifted his arms up and away from his body. She worked efficiently, unrolling the bandaging as she wrapped it around him. She tied it over his belly. “Better?” she asked.

  “Much. ” He started to stretch, then thought better of it.

  “There’s food,” she offered as she went to the table.

  “In a moment. ” I saw his look darken. So did Molly. She turned back to him, her mouth gone small. “Molly. ” He sighed. He tried again. “Nettle is King Shrewd’s great grandchild. A Farseer. Regal sees her as a threat to him. He may try to kill you again. Both of you. In fact, I am sure he will. ” He scratched at his beard. Into her silence, he suggested, “Perhaps the only way to protect you both is to put you under the true king’s protection. There is a man I know . . . perhaps Fitz told you of him. Chade?”

  She shook her head mutely. Her eyes were going blacker and blacker.

  “He could take Nettle to a safe place. And see you were well provided for. ” The words came out of him slowly, reluctantly.

  Molly’s reply was swift. “No. She is not a Farseer. She is mine. And I will not sell her, not for coin or safety. ” She glared at him and practically spat the words. “How could you think I would!”

  He smiled at her anger. I saw guilty relief on his face. “I did not think you would. But I felt obliged to offer it. ” His next words came even more hesitantly. “I had thought of another way. I do not know what you will think of it. We will still have to travel away from here, find a town where we are not known. ” He looked at the floor abruptly. “If we were wed before we got there, folk would never question that she was mine. . . . ”

  Molly stood as still as if turned to stone. The silence stretched. Burrich lifted his eyes and met hers pleadingly. “Do not take this wrong. I expect nothing of you . . . that way. But . . . even so, you need not wed me. There are Witness Stones in Kevdor. We could go there, with a minstrel. I could stand before them, and swear she was mine. No one would ever question it. ”

  “You’d lie before a Witness Stone?” Molly asked incredulously. “You’d do that? To keep Nettle safe?”

  He nodded slowly. His eyes never left her face.

  She shook her head. “No, Burrich, I will not have it. It is the worst of luck, to do such a thing. All know the tales of what becomes of those who profane the Witness Stones with a lie. ”

  “I will chance it. ” He spoke grimly. I had never known the man to lie before Nettle had come into his life. Now he offered to give a false oath. I wondered if Molly knew what he was offering her.

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  She did. “No. You will not lie. ” She spoke with certainty.

  “Molly. Please. ”

  “Be quiet!” she said with great finality. She cocked her head and looked at him, puzzling something out. “Burrich?” she asked with a tentative note to her voice. “I have heard it told . . . Lacey said that once you loved Patience. ” She took a breath. “Do you love her still?” she asked.

  Burrich looked almost angry. Molly met his stare with a pleading look until Burrich looked away from her. She could barely hear his words. “I love my memories of her. As she was then, as I was then. Probably much as you still love Fitz. ”

  It was Molly’s turn to wince. “Some of the things I remember . . . yes. ” She nodded as if reminding herself of something. Then she looked up and met Burrich’s eyes. “But he is dead. ” So oddly final, those words coming from her. Then, with a plea in her voice, she added, “Listen to me. Just listen. All my life it’s been . . . First my father. He always told me he loved me. But when he struck me and cursed me, it never felt like love to me. Then Fitz. He swore he loved me and touched me gently. But his lies never sounded like love to me. Now you . . . Burrich, you never speak to me of love. You have never touched me, not in anger nor desire. But both your silence and your look speak more of love to me than ever their words or touches did. ” She waited. He did not speak. “Burrich?” she asked desperately.

  “You are young,” he said softly. “And lovely. So full of spirit. You deserve better. ”

  “Burrich. Do you love me?” A simple question, timidly asked.

  He folded his work-scarred hands in his lap. “Yes. ” He gripped his hands together. To stop their trembling?

  Molly’s smile broke forth like the sun from a cloud. “Then you shall marry me. And afterward, if you wish, I shall stand before the Witness Stones. And I will admit to all that I was with you before we were wed. And I will show them the child. ”

  He finally lifted his eyes to hers. His look was incredulous. “You’d marry me? As I am? Old? Poor? Scarred?”

  “You are none of those things to me. To me, you are the man I love. ”

  He shook his head. Her answer had only baffled him more. “And after what you just said about bad luck? You would stand before a Witness Stone and lie?”

  She smiled a different sort of smile at him. One I had not seen in a long time. One that broke my heart. “It need not be a lie,” she pointed out quietly.

  His nostrils flared like a stallion’s as he surged to his feet. The breath he drew swelled his chest.

  “Wait,” she commanded him softly, and he did. She licked her thumb and forefinger. She swiftly pinched out all but one candle. Then she crossed the darkened room to his arms.

  I fled.

  “Oh, my boy. I am so sorry. ”

  I shook my head silently. My eyes were squeezed tight shut, but tears leaked from them anyway. I found my voice. “He will be good to her. And Nettle. He is the sort of man she deserves. No, Verity.
I should take comfort in it. To know he will be with her, caring for them both. ”

  Comfort. I could find no comfort in it. Only pain.

  “It seems a very poor bargain I have made you. ” Verity sounded genuinely grieved for me.

  “No. It’s all right. ” I caught my breath. “Now, Verity. I would it were done quickly. ”

  “Are you sure?”

  “As you will. ”

  He took my life from me.

  It was a dream I had had before. I knew the feel of an old man’s body. The other time, I had been King Shrewd, in a soft nightshirt, in a clean bed. This time was harsher. I ached in every joint of my body. My gut burned inside me. And I had scalded myself, on my face and hands. There was more pain than life left in this body. Like a candle almost burned to the socket. I opened my eyes stickily. I sprawled on cold, gritty stone. A wolf sat watching me.

  This is wrong, he told me.

  I could think of nothing to say to that. It certainly did not feel right. After a time, I pushed myself up to my hands and knees. My hands hurt. My knees hurt. Every joint in my body creaked and complained as I drew myself up and looked around. The night was warm, but I still shivered. Above me, on a dais, an incomplete dragon slumbered.

  I do not understand. Nighteyes pleaded for an explanation.

  I do not wish to understand. I do not want to know.

  But whether I wished it or not, I did know. I walked slowly and the wolf came at my heels. We walked past a dying fire between two tents. No one kept watch. From Kettricken’s tent, there were small noises. Verity’s face was what she saw in the dimness. Verity’s dark eyes, looking into hers. She believed her husband had finally come to her.

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  In truth, he had.

  I did not want to hear, I did not want to know. I walked on with my old man’s careful pacing. Great black blocks of stone loomed around us. Ahead of us, something clicked and chinked softly. I walked through the sharp-edged stone shadows and into moonlight again.

  Once you shared my body. Is this like that?

  “No. ” I spoke the word aloud, and in the wake of my voice, I heard a small scrabbling. What’s that?

  I’ll go and see. The wolf melted into the shadows. He returned instantly. It’s only the Scentless One. He hides from you. He does not know you.

  I knew where I would find him. I took my time. This body had all it could do to move, let alone move swiftly. When I came to Girl-on-a-Dragon, it was horribly hard to clamber up on her dais. Once I was up, I could see the fresh rock chips everywhere. I sat down by the dragon’s feet, a cautious lowering of my body to cold stone. I looked at his work. He had almost cut her free. “Fool?” I called out softly in the night.

  He came slowly, from the shadows, to stand eyes down before me. “My king,” he said softly. “I tried. But I cannot help myself. I cannot just leave her here. . . . ”

  I nodded slowly, wordlessly. At the base of the dais, Nighteyes whined. The Fool glanced down at him, then back up at me. Puzzlement crossed his face. “My lord?” he asked.

  I reached for the thread of Skill-bond between us and found it. The Fool’s face grew very still as he struggled to understand. He came to sit beside me. He stared at me, as if he could see through Verity’s skin. “I like this not,” he said at last.

  “Nor I,” I agreed.

  “Why have you . . . ”

  “Better not to know,” I said briefly.

  For a time we sat in silence. Then the Fool reached back to brush a handful of fresh stone chips from about the dragon’s foot. He met my eyes, but there was still furtiveness as he drew a chisel from his shirt. His hammer was a stone.

  “That’s Verity’s chisel. ”

  “I know. He doesn’t need it anymore, and my knife broke. ” He set the edge carefully to the rock. “It works much better anyway. ” I watched him tap another small chip free. I aligned my thoughts with his.

  “She draws on your strength,” I observed quietly.

  “I know. ” Another chip came free. “I was curious. And my touch hurt her. ” He placed his chisel again. “I feel I owe her something. ”

  “Fool. She could take all you offer her and it would still not be enough. ”

  “How do you know?”

  I shrugged. “This body knows. ”

  Then I stared as he laid his Skill-fingers to the place where he had chiseled. I winced, but sensed no pain from her. She took something from him. But he had not the Skill to shape her with his hands. What he gave her was only enough to torment her.

  “She reminds me of my older sister,” he said into the night. “She had golden hair. ”

  I sat in stunned silence. He did not look at me as he added, “I should have liked to see her again. She used to spoil me outrageously. I would have liked to have seen all my family again. ” His tone was no more than wistful as he moved his fingers idly against the chiseled stone.

  “Fool? Let me try?”

  He gave me a look that was almost jealous. “She may not accept you,” he warned me.

  I smiled at him. Verity’s smile, through his beard. “There is a link between us. Fine as thread and neither the elfbark nor your weariness aid it. But it is there. Put your hand to my shoulder. ”

  I did not know why I did it. Perhaps because he had never before spoken to me of a sister or a home he missed. I refused to stop and wonder. Not thinking was so much easier, and not feeling was easiest of all. He put his unskilled hand, not to my shoulder, but to the side of my neck. Instinctively, he was right. Skin to skin, I knew him better. I held Verity’s silver hands up before my eyes and marveled at them. Silver to the eye, scalded and raw to the senses. Then, before I could change my mind, I reached down and grasped the dragon’s shapeless forefoot between my two hands.

  Instantly, I could feel the dragon. Almost it squirmed within the stone. I knew the edge of each scale, the tip of each wicked claw. And I knew the woman who had carved it. The women. A coterie, so long ago. Salt’s Coterie. But Salt had been too proud. Her features were on the carven face, and she had sought to remain in her own form, carving herself upon the dragon that her coterie shaped around her. They had been too loyal to object. And almost she had succeeded. The dragon had been finished, and almost filled. The dragon had quickened and began to rise as the coterie was absorbed into it. But Salt had striven to remain only within the carved girl. She had held back from the dragon. And the dragon had fallen before it could even rise, sinking back into the stone, miring down forever. Leaving the coterie trapped in the dragon and Salt trapped in the girl.

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  All this I knew, swifter than lightning. I felt too, the hunger of the dragon. It pulled at me, pleading for sustenance. Much had it taken from the Fool. I sensed what he had given, light and dark. The jeering taunts of gardeners and chamberlains when he was young at Buckkeep. A branch of apple blossoms outside a window in spring. An image of me, my jerkin flapping as I hurried across the yard at Burrich’s heels, trying to make my shorter legs match his long stride. A silver fish leaping above a silent pond at dawn.

  The dragon tugged at me insistently. I suddenly knew what had really drawn me here. Take my memories of my mother, and the feelings that went with them. I do not want to know them at all. Take the ache in my throat when I think of Molly, take all the sharp-edged, bright-colored days I recall with her. Take their brilliance and leave me but the shadows of what I saw and felt. Let me recall them without cutting myself on their sharpness. Take my days and nights in Regal’s dungeons. It is enough to know what was done to me. Take it to keep, and let me stop feeling my face against that stone floor, hearing the sound of my nose breaking, smelling and tasting my own blood. Take my hurt that I never knew my father, take my hours of staring up at his portrait when the great hall was empty and I could do so alone. Take my—

  Fitz. Stop. You give her too much, there will
be nothing left of you. The Fool’s voice inside me was horror-stricken at what he had encouraged.

  —memories of that tower-top, of the bare windswept Queen’s Garden and Galen standing over me. Take that image of Molly going so willingly to Burrich’s arms. Take it and quench it and seal it away where it can never sear me again. Take—

  My brother. Enough.

  Nighteyes was suddenly between me and the dragon. I knew I still gripped that scaly foreleg, but he snarled at it, defying it to take more of me.

  I do not care if it all is taken, I told Nighteyes.

  But I do. I would sooner not be bonded with a Forged one. Get back, Cold One. He snarled in spirit as well as beside me.

  To my surprise the dragon yielded. My companion nipped at my shoulder. Let go. Get away from that!

  I let go of the dragon’s foreleg. I opened my eyes, surprised to find it was still night all around me.

  The Fool had his arm around Nighteyes. “Fitz,” he said quietly. He spoke into the wolf’s ruff, but I heard him clearly. “Fitz, I am sorry. But you cannot throw away all your pain. If you stop feeling pain . . . ”

  I did not listen to the rest of what he said. I stared at the dragon’s foreleg. Where my two hands had rested against the lumpy stone there were two handprints now. Within those shapes, each scale stood fine and perfect. All of that, I thought. All of that, and this is how much dragon it brought me. Then I thought of Verity’s dragon. It was immense. How had he done it? What had he held inside him, all those years, to have enough for the shaping of such a dragon?

  “He feels much, your uncle. Great loves. Vast loyalty. Sometimes I think that my two hundred-odd years pale beside what he has felt in his forty-some. ”

  All three of us turned to Kettle. I felt no surprise. I had known she was coming and I had not cared. She leaned heavily on a stick and her face seemed to hang from the bones of her skull. She met my eyes and I knew that she knew everything. Skill-linked as she was to Verity, she knew it all. “Get down from there. All of you, before you hurt yourselves. ”

  We obeyed slowly and I slowest of all. Verity’s joints ached and his body was weary. Kettle looked at me balefully when I finally stood beside her. “If you were going to do that, you might have put it in Verity’s dragon instead,” she pointed out.

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