Assassins quest, p.91
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       Assassins Quest, p.91
 

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  “He wouldn’t let me. You wouldn’t let me. ”

  “No. We wouldn’t have. Let me tell you something, Fitz. You are going to miss what you gave away. You will recover some of the feelings in time, of course. All memories are connected, and like a man’s skin, they can heal. In time, left to themselves, those memories would have stopped hurting you. You may someday wish you could call up that pain. ”

  “I do not think so,” I said calmly, to cover my own doubt. “I still have plenty of pain left. ”

  Kettle lifted her old face to the night. She drew a long breath in through her nose. “Dawn comes,” she said, as if she had scented it. “You must return to the dragon. To Verity’s dragon. And you two,” her head swiveled to regard the Fool and Nighteyes. “You two should go up to that lookout point and see if Regal’s troops are in sight yet. Nighteyes, you let Fitz know what you see. Go on, both of you. And Fool. You leave Girl-on-a-Dragon alone after this. You would have to give her your entire life. And even then, it might not be enough. That being so, stop torturing yourself. And her. Go on, now!”

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  They went, but not without some backward looks. “Come on,” Kettle ordered me tersely. She began to hobble back the way she had come. I followed, walking as stiffly as she, through the black and silver shadows of the blocks that littered the quarry. She looked every bit of her two hundred-odd years. I felt even older. Aching body, joints that caught and creaked. I lifted my hand and scratched my ear. Then I snatched it down, chagrined. Verity would have a silver ear now. Already the skin of it burned, and it seemed the distant night insects chirred more loudly now.

  “I am sorry, by the way. About your Molly girl and all. I did try to tell you. ”

  Kettle did not sound sorry. But I understood that now. Almost all of her feelings were in the dragon. She spoke of what she knew she would have felt, once. She still had pain for me, but she no longer recalled any pain of her own to compare it with. I only asked, quietly, “Is there nothing private anymore?”

  “Only the things we keep from ourselves,” she replied sadly. She looked over at me. “It is a good thing you do this night. A kind thing. ” Her lips started to smile but her eyes teared. “To give him one last night of youth and passion. ” She studied me, the set look on my face. “I shall say no more of it, then. ”

  I walked the rest of the way beside her in silence.

  I sat by the warm embers of last night’s fire and watched the dawn come. The shrilling of night insects changed gradually to the morning challenges of distant birds. I could hear them very well now. It was strange, I thought, to sit and wait for myself. Kettle said nothing. She breathed deep of the changing scent of the air as night turned to dawn and watched the lightening of the sky with avid eyes. Storing it all up to put into the dragon.

  I heard the grate of boot against stone and looked up. I watched myself coming. My stride was confident and brisk, my head up. My face was freshly washed, my wet hair slicked back from my brow into a warrior’s tail. Verity wore my body well.

  Our eyes met in the early light. I saw my eyes narrow as Verity appraised his own body. I stood up and without thinking, began to brush my clothes off. Then I realized what I was doing. This was not a shirt I had borrowed. My laugh boomed out, louder than I used it. Verity shook my head at me.

  “Leave it, boy. There’s no making it better. And I’m almost finished with it anyway. ” He slapped my chest with the palm of my hand. “Once I had a body like this,” he told me, as if I hadn’t known. “I had forgotten so much of how that felt. So much. ” The smile faded from his face as he regarded me peering at him from his own eyes. “Take care of it, Fitz. You only get one. To keep, anyway. ”

  A wave of giddiness. Black closed from the edges of my vision, and I folded up my knees and sank down to keep from falling.

  “Sorry,” Verity said quietly, and it was in his own voice.

  I looked up to find him looking down on me. I stared up at him mutely. I could smell Kettricken’s scent on my skin. My body was very tired. I knew a moment of total outrage. Then it crested and fell away as if the emotion were too much effort. Verity’s eyes met mine and accepted all I felt.

  “I will neither apologize to you nor thank you. Neither would be adequate. ” He shook his head to himself. “And in truth, how could I say I am sorry? I am not. ” He looked away from me, out over my head. “My dragon will rise. My queen will bear a child. I will drive the Red Ships from our shore. ” He took a deep breath. “No. I am not sorry for our bargain. ” His eyes came back to me. “FitzChivalry. Are you sorry?”

  Slowly I stood up. “I don’t know. ” I tried to decide. “The roots of it go too deep,” I said at last. “Where would I start to undo my past? How far back would I have to reach, how much would I have to change in order to change this, or to say I was not sorry now?”

  The road is empty below us. Nighteyes spoke in my mind.

  I know. Kettle knows, too. She but looked for something to busy the Fool and sent you along to keep him safe. You can come back now.

  Oh. Are you all right?

  “FitzChivalry. Are you all right?” There was concern in Verity’s voice. But it could not completely mask the triumph there as well.

  “Of course not,” I told them both. “Of course not. ” I walked away from the dragon.

  Behind me, I heard Kettle ask eagerly, “Are we ready to quicken him?”

  Verity’s soft voice carried to my ears. “No. Not just yet. For a little while longer, I would have these memories to myself. For a short time more, I would remain a man. ”

  As I passed through the camp, Kettricken emerged from her tent. She wore the same travel-wearied tunic and leggings she had the day before. Her hair was caught back from her face in a short, thick braid. There were still lines in her brow and at the corners of her mouth. But her face had the warm luminescence of the finest pearls. Renewed faith shone in her. She took a deep breath of the morning air and smiled at me radiantly.

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  I hurried past her.

  The stream water was very cold. Coarse horsetail grasses grew along one bank. I used handfuls of them to scrub myself. My wet clothes were draped on the bushes on the other side of the stream. The heat of the day promised they would soon be dry. Nighteyes sat on the bank and watched me with a pucker between his eyes.

  I do not understand. You do not smell bad.

  Nighteyes. Go hunting. Please.

  You wish to be alone?

  As much as that is possible anymore.

  He stood up and stretched, curtseying low to me as he did so. Someday, it will be only you and I. We shall hunt and eat and sleep. And you will heal.

  May we both live to see that, I agreed wholeheartedly.

  The wolf slipped off through the trees. Experimentally, I scrubbed at the Fool’s fingerprints on my wrist. They did not come off, but I learned a great deal about the life cycle of a horsetail fern. I gave it up. I decided I could take my entire skin off and still not feel free of what had happened. I waded out of the stream, dashing the water off myself as I went. My clothing was dry enough to put back on. I sat down on the bank to put my boots on. I nearly thought of Molly and Burrich but I quickly pushed the image away. Instead I wondered how soon Regal’s soldiers would arrive and if Verity would have his dragon finished before then. Perhaps it was even now finished. I should want to see it.

  I wanted more to be alone.

  I lay back on the grass and looked up into the blue sky overhead. I tried to feel something. Dread, excitement, anger. Hate. Love. Instead I felt only confused. And tired. Weary of flesh and spirit. I closed my eyes against the brightness of the sky.

  The harp notes walked alongside the sounds of the stream flowing. They blended with it, then danced apart. I opened my eyes to it and squinted at Starling. She sat on the stream bank beside me and played. Her hair was down, drying
in ripples down her back in the sun. She had a stem of green grass in her mouth and her bare feet nestled against the soft grass. She met my eyes but said nothing. I watched her hands play on the strings. Her left hand worked harder, compensating for the stiffness in the last two fingers. I should have felt something about that. I didn’t know what.

  “What good are feelings?” I didn’t know I had the question until I spoke it aloud.

  Her fingers poised over the strings. She furrowed her brow at me. “I don’t think there’s an answer to that question. ”

  “I’m not finding answers to much of anything lately. Why aren’t you back in the quarry, watching them complete the dragon? Surely that is the stuff for a song to spring from. ”

  “Because I am here with you,” she said simply. Then she grinned. “And because everyone else seems busy. Kettle sleeps. Kettricken and Verity . . . she was combing his hair when I left. I do not think I had seen King Verity smile before. When he does, he looks a great deal like you, about the eyes. Anyway. I do not think they will miss me. ”

  “And the Fool?”

  She shook her head. “He chips at the stone around Girl-on-a-Dragon. I know he should not, but I do not think he can stop. Nor do I know any way to force him. ”

  “I don’t think he can help her. But I don’t think he can resist trying. For all his quick tongue, he has a soft nature. ”

  “I know that. Now. In some ways I’ve come to know him very well. In others, he will always be unknowable to me. ”

  I nodded silently to that. The silence lasted a time. Then, subtly, it became a different kind of silence. “Actually,” Starling said uncomfortably, “the Fool suggested I should find you. ”

  I groaned. I wondered just how much he had told her.

  “I’m sorry to hear about Molly . . . ” she began.

  “But not surprised,” I filled in for her. I lifted my arm and put it across my eyes to block the sunlight.

  “No. ” She spoke quietly. “Not surprised. ” She cast about for something to say. “At least you know she is safe and cared for,” she offered.

  I knew that. It shamed me that I could find so little comfort in it. Putting it into the dragon had helped in the same way that cutting off an infected limb helped. Being rid of it was not the same as being healed of it. The empty place inside me itched. Perhaps I wanted to hurt. I watched her from the shade of my arm.

  “Fitz,” she said quietly. “I asked you once, for yourself. In gentleness and friendship. To chase a memory away. ” She looked away from me, at the sunlight glinting on the stream. “Now I offer that,” she said humbly.

  “But I don’t love you,” I said honestly. And instantly knew that it was the worst thing I could have said just then.

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  Starling sighed and set her harp aside. “I know that. You know that. But it was not a thing that had to be said just now. ”

  “And I know that. Now. It is just that I don’t want any lies, spoken or unspoken . . . ”

  She leaned over me and stopped my mouth with hers. After a time she lifted her face a little. “I am a minstrel. I know more about lying than you will ever discover. And minstrels know that sometimes lies are what a man needs most. In order to make a new truth of them. ”

  “Starling,” I began.

  “You know you will just say the wrong thing,” she told me. “So why don’t you be quiet for a time? Don’t make this complicated. Stop thinking, just for a while. ”

  Actually, it was quite a while.

  When I awoke, she still lay warm against my side. Nighteyes stood over us, looking down at me, panting with the heat of the day. When I opened my eyes, he folded his ears back and gave his tail a slow wag. A drop of warm saliva fell on my arm.

  “Go away. ”

  The others are calling you. And looking for you. He cocked his head at me and offered, I could show Kettricken where to find you.

  I sat up and squashed three mosquitoes on my chest. They left bloody smears. I reached for my shirt. Is something wrong?

  No. They are ready to wake the dragon. Verity wishes to tell you goodbye.

  I shook Starling gently. “Wake up. Or you will miss Verity waking the dragon. ”

  She stirred lazily. “For that, I shall get up. I can think of nothing else that would stir me. Besides, it may be my last chance at a song. Fate has ruled that I always be elsewhere whenever you do something interesting. ”

  I had to smile at that. “So. You will make no songs about Chivalry’s Bastard after all?” I teased her.

  “One, perhaps. A love song. ” She gave me a last secret smile. “That part, at least, was interesting. ”

  I stood up and drew her to her feet. I kissed her. Nighteyes whined his impatience, and she turned quickly in my arms. Nighteyes stretched and bowed low to her. When she turned back to me, her eyes were wide.

  “I warned you,” I told her.

  She only laughed and stooped to gather up our clothes.

  39

  Verity’s Dragon

  SIX DUCHIES TROOPS poured into Blue Lake and took ship for the farther side and the Mountain Kingdom on the very days that the Red Ships were beating their way up the Vin River to Tradeford. Tradeford had never been a fortified city. Although word of the ships’ coming preceded them by fast messenger, the news was greeted with general disdain. What menace were twelve ships of barbarians to such a great city as Tradeford? The City Guard was alerted, and some of the dockside merchants took steps to remove their goods from warehouses close to the water, but the general attitude was that if they did manage to get as far up the river as Tradeford, archers would easily pick off the Raiders before they could do any real damage. The general consensus was that the ships must be bringing some offer of treaty to the King of the Six Duchies. There was much discussion as to how much of the Coastal Duchies they would ask ceded to them, and the possible value of reopening trade with the OutIslands themselves, not to mention restoring the trade flow down the Buck River.

  This is but one more example of the errors that can be made when one thinks one knows what the enemy desires, and acts upon it. The folk of Tradeford ascribed to the Red Ships the same desire for prosperity and plenty that they themselves felt. To base their estimation of the Red Ships on that motive was a grievous mistake.

  I don’t think Kettricken had accepted the idea that Verity must die for the dragon to quicken until the actual moment he kissed her goodbye. He kissed her so carefully, his hands and arms held wide of her, his head cocked so that no silver smear would touch her face. For all that, it was a tender kiss, a hungry and lingering one. A moment longer she clung to him. Then he said something softly to her. She immediately put her hands to her lower belly. “How can you be so sure?” she asked him, even as the tears began to course down her cheeks.

  “I know,” he said firmly. “And so my first task must be to return you to Jhaampe. You must be kept safe this time. ”

  “My place is in Buckkeep Castle,” she protested.

  I had thought he would argue. But, “You are right. It is. And thither I shall bear you. Farewell, my love. ”

  Kettricken did not reply. She stood watching him walk away from her, an intense look of incomprehension on her face.

  For all the days we had spent striving for this very thing, at the end it seemed rushed and untidy. Kettle paced stiffly by the dragon. She had bid us all farewell with a distracted air. Now she hovered beside the dragon, breathing as if she had just run a race. At every moment, she was touching the dragon, a fingertip caress, a dragging hand. Color rippled in the wake of her touch and lingered, fading slowly.

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  Verity took more care with his goodbyes. To Starling, he admonished, “Care for my lady. Sing your songs well and true, and let no man ever doubt the child she carries is mine. With that truth I charge you, minstrel. ”

  “I shall do
my best, my king,” Starling replied gravely. She went to stand beside Kettricken. She was to accompany the queen on the dragon’s broad back. She kept wiping her damp palms down the front of her tunic and checking to make sure the pack that carried her harp was secure to her back. She gave me a nervous smile. Neither of us needed more farewell than that.

  There had been some furor about my decision to stay. “Regal’s troops draw nearer with every passing moment,” Verity reminded me yet again.

  “Then you should hurry, so I will not be in this quarry when they arrive,” I reminded him.

  He frowned at that. “If I see any of Regal’s troops upon the road, I shall see they do not get this far,” he offered me.

  “Take no risks with my queen,” I reminded him.

  Nighteyes was my excuse to stay. He had no wish to ride upon a dragon. I would not leave him. I am sure Verity knew the real reasons. I did not think I should return to Buck. I had already made Starling promise me that there would be no mention of me in song. It had not been an easy promise to wring from a minstrel. But I had insisted. I never wanted either Burrich or Molly to know that I yet lived. “In this, dear friend, you have been Sacrifice,” Kettricken had told me quietly. She could offer me no greater compliment. I knew no word of me would ever pass her lips.

  The Fool was the one who was being difficult. All of us urged him to go with the Queen and the minstrel. He consistently refused. “The White Prophet will stay with the Catalyst,” was all he would say. I privately believed it was more a case of the Fool staying with Girl-on-a-Dragon. He had become obsessed with her and it frightened me. He would have to leave her before Regal’s troops arrived at the quarry. I had privately told him that, and he had nodded easily, but with a distracted look. I doubted not that he had plans of his own. We had run out of time to argue with him.

  There came a time when there was no reason left for Verity to linger. We had said little to one another, but I felt there was little we could say. Everything that had happened now seemed inevitable to me. It was as the Fool said. Looking back, I could see where his prophecies had long ago swept us into this channel. No one could be blamed. No one could be blameless.

  He gave me a nod, before he turned and walked toward the dragon. Then he halted suddenly. As he turned back, he was unbuckling his battered sword belt. He came toward me, wrapping the belt loosely about the sheath as he came. “Take my sword,” he said abruptly. “I won’t need it. And you seem to have lost the last one I gave you. ” He halted suddenly in midstride, as if reconsidering. He hastily drew the sword from the sheath. One last time he ran a silver hand down the blade, leaving it gleaming behind his touch. His voice was gruff as he said, “It would be a poor courtesy to Hod’s skill to pass this on with a blunted blade. Take better care of it than I did, Fitz. ” He resheathed it and handed it to me. His eyes met mine as I took it. “And better care of yourself than I did. I did love you, you know,” he said brusquely. “Despite all I’ve done to you, I loved you. ”

 
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