Assassins fate, p.95
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       Assassin's Fate, p.95
 

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  one draws as you do, let alone paints in such detail.’

  ‘Will Nettle say I cannot be friends with Thick any more?’

  She shrugged. Her hair, shortened by a mourning cut, had a strand of spiderweb on it. I reached up and took it out for her.

  ‘Nettle will decide. But they will know. Because I must report it back to them tomorrow.’

  ‘Will you tell them you warned me?’

  She took a huge breath and let it pour out of her. ‘Will you tell them I warned you?’

  ‘No. Absolutely not.’

  ‘I am a terrible spy,’ she admitted. I watched her slip out of the door and smiled.

  I did not sleep at all. In the morning, I begged Caution to let me breakfast in my room so that I could put off the dreaded business of dressing and hair-fussing. She worried that I was ill, and conceded. I ate, and then submitted to being groomed and decorated with clothing and having my short hair brushed and pinned up as best she could before I went off for my session as a lady to Queen Elliania. Her belly now stuck out like the prow of a ship, and all the talk was of the baby to come, and all our sewing was for the baby. Then I had my lessons, in languages and history.

  I went to my midday meal full of dread for what must come. I sat on the dais with the other nobility and ate with them, and at the close of the meal, Riddle invited me to ride out with Nettle and him that afternoon. His eyes were kind, his mouth reserved. I accepted with formal courtesy, and then was trooped back to my room by Lady Simmer. Caution had set out appropriate clothing. My riding garments were green and yellow, Withywood colours. It made me consider how I fitted into the Farseer hierarchy.

  I descended, resigned to a gaggle of folk to accompany us. But not even the nurse and the baby were there, and Riddle dismissed all the grooms, even Per who had been loitering hopefully nearby. Riddle tossed me up onto my horse without ceremony, and Nettle mounted hers without anyone so much as touching her elbow. We left at a sedate walk that turned into a canter as soon as we were out of the gates of Buckkeep. We did not speak as we rode, but gave the horses a good gallop on a trail through a forest that led to a secluded glen near a stream. Here we dismounted and let the horses water. And Nettle said, ‘I know that you visit Lord Thick every night. You must know it is not appropriate to be running about the keep in your nightgown.’

  I bowed my head and tried to look startled.

  ‘Well?’ she demanded.

  ‘He is my friend. He is teaching me to make Skill-music. We play with his cat. He has nice things to eat. That is all.’

  ‘And you have learned to erect such Skill-walls that I can barely find you during the day.’

  I kept my eyes on the grassy sward. ‘It is to keep the music in. He says we must not make the music too loud, for then the apprentices cannot sleep well.’

  ‘Will you lower your walls and let me hear the music you have learned?’

  It was a test. Did I trust her enough to lower my walls, so that she might see the truth of what I had told her? If I refused … No. There was no refusing this. I dropped my walls. I felt her mind touch mine. I began the purring-cat music.

  Wolf Father slammed into my awareness with such force that I sat down flat on the grass. We must get to the queen!

  Queen Elliania knows of you? I felt dazed, as if the air had been knocked out of me. I could hear Nettle exclaiming and Riddle suddenly knelt beside me, but I knew the wolf was more important. ‘How are you here, when my father is dead?’ I asked him.

  ‘What did she say?’ Nettle asked Riddle in alarm.

  He isn’t dead. Not yet. And I need to get to the queen, the one who hunted with me. Queen Kettricken. I wish to bid her farewell.

  Farewell?

  Yes. I felt him hide something from me. Wolf Father was very like my other father.

  Very well. I will do my best. I looked up at Riddle and Nettle. There was no simple way to explain it. I would not even try. ‘I am not ill. Nighteyes has come to me. I must see Queen Kettricken right away. My father is not dead. Nighteyes wishes to bid her farewell.’ The next words came out strangled. ‘I think they are dying somewhere.’

  Riddle crouched before me. He put his hands on my shoulders. ‘Explain more. From the beginning.’

  I could feel the wolf’s clawing panic. I tried. ‘Sometimes, when my father could not be with me, Wolf Father would come. Into my mind. Nighteyes. I know you know who he was! He was Wit-bonded to my father, and after he died, he lived inside my father.’

  I looked from one concerned face to the other. Surely they must have known this. They were looking at me as if I were mad.

  ‘When I was taken, Wolf Father went with me. He tried to help me, to warn me or give me ideas of what to do. But sometimes, if my walls were too tight, he could not speak to me. When I saw my father, Nighteyes went back to him. And just now, when I dropped my walls for Nettle, he came to me again. And he says he must see Lady Kettricken. Because my father is dying.’ I shook my head and demanded aloud of Nighteyes, ‘How can my father be dying when Beloved said he was dead? Why would he lie to me? Why would he leave my father alone and dying?’

  He didn’t die, Bee. But alone, he will not last much longer. He believes he can rest and be well enough to come home. I know he cannot. He must stay there. It is time for us to carve our dragon.

  ‘Bee!’

  What?

  ‘Bee. Answer me. Are you Witted?’ Nettle demanded.

  ‘No. I don’t think so.’ I hesitated. It seemed such a random question as I strove to understand what Nighteyes had told me. ‘I don’t know. Cats talk to me but they talk to everyone, or anyone who will listen. But this is not the Wit. I don’t think it’s the Wit. He is my Wolf Father. Please! Let me go to Kettricken. It’s important!’

  Nettle put her hands on my shoulders. She spoke slowly. ‘Bee. Our father is dead. It’s hard to accept and even I want to pretend it’s not true. But he’s dead. The Fool told us all. He was trapped under a fallen timber, and he had bled heavily from a sword slash. He gave to the Fool his last strength. So he could save you. Our father could not have survived, let alone escaped.’

  ‘I wouldn’t bet money on that,’ Riddle said grimly. ‘Not until I see his body. Come. We need to return to Buckkeep.’

  ‘To the healers?’ Nettle asked doubtfully.

  ‘To Lady Kettricken,’ Riddle asserted. ‘Nettle, I know you must doubt this. But we must act as if it were true! We go to Kettricken, to ask what she thinks. And then we will make that other decision.’

  ‘To Kettricken,’ she agreed reluctantly.

  The old queen had not been well before she received the news of my father’s death. On the way to her chambers, Nettle told me that some of the healers felt that news had been the tipping point for her. ‘I dread this,’ Nettle said to Riddle. ‘Might we not be bringing more distress into her life when she is already frail?’

  ‘I do not think “frail” is the best word to apply to her. I think she is resigned, Nettle.’

  I had met with Kettricken only that one awkward time since our return. She had been truly ill that day, and full of sadness. Her rooms had been curtained and close. This day, we were admitted to a chamber where the window stood ajar and the sunlight flooded the room. It was a simple room, sparsely furnished. There were chairs to sit on, and a low table, and little else. A vase almost as tall as me held an arrangement of reeds and rushes. That was all. The flagged floor was scrubbed and bare.

  Lady Kettricken entered without ceremony shortly after a servant had shown us into the room and announced us. Her grey hair was braided and coiled about her head. She wore a long, straight, pale-blue cotton robe, belted at her waist, and soft slippers. No jewellery did she wear, nor paint on her face. She could have been any old woman at a market. She regarded us with calm blue eyes. The closest she came to a complaint was to say, ‘This is a sudden visit.’

  I found I was smiling at her, delighted. I almost wriggled. No. Nighteyes within me was delighted. I took a deep
breath of the air, seeking her familiar scent. ‘You still walk like a forest hunter, light of foot and steady-eyed,’ I told her.

  ‘Bee!’ Nettle rebuked me.

  But Lady Kettricken had only a puzzled smile for me. ‘Please, sit,’ she bade us, and there was only a slight hitch of stiffness as she lowered herself to a seat. ‘I am pleased to see all of you. Should I ring for refreshments for us?’

  ‘Could there be ginger-cakes?’ I asked, again without knowing I would speak. Ashamed, I hunched my head down between my shoulders and looked up at her.

  She raised her brows at me and with concern asked, ‘Is there something going on here that I do not know about?’

  Nettle looked hopelessly at Riddle. He kept silent. Nettle tried. ‘Bee believes that her father is still alive. She believes that he has sent—’

  ‘No.’ I had to interrupt. ‘No, he didn’t send Nighteyes. He came on his own, to me. And he asked me to come to see Queen Kettricken.’

  The former queen was a fair-skinned woman. I did not think she could blanch whiter but she did. ‘I am no longer a queen,’ she reminded us.

  ‘You are ever a queen to him, but more than that, you are always the hunter with the bow who fed everyone in the dark times. He was glad to be beside you, and glad to run ahead of you and drive game for you, and to offer you what comfort he could when you were sad.’

  Her lips trembled slightly. Then she said gently. ‘Your father told you tales of our time in the Mountains.’

  I folded my arms tightly across my chest and pulled my head up straight. I must not appear mad or hysterical. ‘My lady, my father Fitz told me little of those times. Some, I know. But my Wolf Father tells me these things. He has words for you, before he returns to my father. To die, I think.’

  ‘Can this be so? How did the wolf’s spirit linger? How can he come to you? And where is Fitz? Still in far-off Clerres, and alive?’ Tragedy was in her eyes and drooped her mouth. She became an elderly woman.

  I waited for the answer to rise in me. ‘No. He is at the quarry, in the Mountains. You know the place well. Where Verity carved his dragon. The Scentless One believed him dead. He was mistaken. Fitz is there, but very weak and riddled with worms. He will die soon, and I will die with him. I wished to see you one last time. To let you know how dear you were to me.’ I stopped speaking. I was surprised to find I was standing in front of Kettricken, holding both her hands in mine. The thought he conveyed to me now was only for me. Your mother was a good mate for Fitz. She gave him what he needed. But this is the woman I would have chosen for us. A baffling thought and not something to speak aloud. I pushed him back. ‘He is very earnest that you believe this.’ He offered a memory and I spoke it aloud. ‘He remembers this. Sometimes, on the hunt, your hands would get cold and stiff. You would take off your mittens and gloves, and warm your hands in the ruff of fur on his throat.’

  Lady Kettricken flowed to her feet as if she were a slow fountain. She looked at Nettle. She was a silver-haired queen again. ‘We will need a tent, and warm things, for even in summer the Mountains are chill in the evening. You will take me there. And the Fool. Lord Golden. Whoever he is being today. Summon him as well. Today.’

  ‘Bring food!’ I said. Then the wolf told us the last thing I wanted to know. ‘He is infected with parasites that are eating him. Day by day he dwindles, and I do not know how long I have been gone from him.’ It was strange to hear myself say, ‘Ask Bee. She knows of such deaths. She has seen one.’

  He faded to the back of my mind as if exhausted. I could understand that. Never had I felt him so intense. But he left me standing in the circle of three adults staring down at me in wary belief.

  I doubled over, my hands over my mouth as I suddenly understood. The Traitor’s Death. Vindeliar had promised that to me. Had my father taken it for me?

  Kettricken’s hands on my shoulders were like a raptor’s claws. ‘Stand up,’ she said sternly and forced me upright. ‘You will tell me what this means.’

  Telling them of the messenger and her death was horrid. I wondered how much Beloved knew of it. The queen rang for refreshments. A servant brought tea and ginger-cakes. I ate a cake with tears fresh on my cheeks, and was astounded at how I savoured the scent and taste of it, while confessing a tale of bloody eyes, a butterfly cloak, and a midnight pyre. I had thought my father might have told Riddle or Nettle. Plainly, he had not. Nettle sank down and covered her face. ‘Oh, Da. How could you?’

  I swallowed my bite of cake. ‘The death is unstoppable. So the messenger said. It is the death they reserved for traitors. Slow, painful and inevitable.’ I picked up another ginger-cake. They watched me do it. ‘He likes them!’ I said through my tears. I looked at the cake in my hands. ‘My father is dying horribly. We can’t stop that. But ginger still always tastes wonderful.’

  ‘It does,’ Kettricken agreed. She put another one into my hands.

  I took a large bite of one and for that moment, the ginger and the sweetness was all there was. They were speaking over my head.

  ‘How could he not?’ Riddle said, and reminded Nettle of a previous messenger that had vanished, perhaps murdered, during a Winterfest years before the butterfly cloak incident. That made Nettle uncover her face and knit her brows as she connected the two accounts. Kettricken said nothing except, ‘It is what he would do. Not what he would choose, but what he felt he must do at the time. Still, Bee, I am sorry that you had to serve him so. But we are wasting time. Riddle. Go request all that we need. We will leave before sunset.’

  Nettle held up a hand. ‘My lady, I implore prudence.’ She took a breath and glanced at me as if reluctant to speak in my hearing. Riddle winced for me as she said, ‘I love my sister, but I think we should approach this sensibly. She has suffered a great deal. I was older than she is when Burrich died, and still I had vivid dreams of him coming home to us. I do not think she is lying,’ and here she met my eyes, ‘but I fear she may be mistaken. Before we mount an expedition, let me send a coterie to see what the situation is. If they find him, they can bring him home! Remember that they will face a journey of days. They must take horses to the same leaning Skill-stone that Lady Shine showed us. I have ordered it righted and cleaned: as it has been used before, we consider it reliable. They will need calm and steady mounts for the passage. Once they have made the journey to the market-circle, I believe there is still a journey to the quarry?’

  ‘There is,’ Lady Kettricken admitted slowly. ‘At least we still have fine weather for it. It took us days in the winter. We had to hunt for our food, but this time, we will carry provisions. We shall do better without the snow, and I recall the way.’

  ‘My lady. When did you last go out riding?’

  Her shoulders rounded and she looked at her curled hands. ‘But it is Fitz,’ she said softly.

  ‘And a coterie will reach him much faster than a full expedition. I will be sure that they take at least two who are skilled healers. In the event he is actually there, they will bring him home to us.’

  Lady Kettricken made a final effort. ‘I have a map I have created, of the journey. It will speed us.’

  Both Riddle and Nettle kept silent. I stood still, not sure what was expected of me. Then it came to me. They meant to leave me behind. ‘I will not be left. I will ride my own horse, and Per will come with me.’

  ‘I will fetch my map,’ Lady Kettricken said, as if that were a reply. She stood slowly and the look in her blue eyes was cold and hard. She left the room, walking carefully upright.

  ‘I must gather my things, and find Per,’ I said.

  But Nettle shook her head slowly. She looked very tired. ‘Bee, you need to be sensible. So does Lady Kettricken. And in a few moments, when she is calmer, I will speak to her again. There is no reason to risk her or you on a journey through the Skill-pillars. I will go myself. I will leave Hope with Riddle, and I will take a picked coterie with me. If Father is there, if this is not a terrible illusion you have, then we will bring him back here t
o Buckkeep Castle where he can be treated and cured. Queen Elliania has brought in two new healers, one from her OutIslands and one who has trained with the priests of Sa in Jamaillia. They both bring new ideas, new herbs and according to our healers, new successes.

  ‘But I will not risk you in the Skill-pillars. You have already been endangered too often in your short life. It’s time to be safe and stay here and be a child while you still can. Do you understand clearly what I am telling you? I am not taking you through the Skill-pillars with me.’

  I met her gaze. ‘I understand,’ I said quietly.

  ‘Repeat it.’

  I drew a frustrated breath. ‘You will not be taking me to Da in the quarry through the Skill-pillars with you. Even though he is probably dying.’

  She folded her lips and Riddle rolled his eyes at me. Then, ‘Exactly,’ she said. She sighed. ‘Now off with you. Go about your regular duties and please, speak of this to no one. I myself will inform King Dutiful. Oh, and as to what we were trying to discuss earlier? Of course you may visit Thick, but at a proper time of day and with one of his attendants there, to exercise the restraint that Thick has been lacking. I will arrange that today. You must be careful of him. He is prone to be excitable and sometimes difficult. And the discussion we were to have about your Skill-training must wait until I return. We may need to damp your ability until you are able to exercise more caution with it.’

  I had not found him difficult. I did not say that. Instead I curtseyed to my sister. As I turned, she spoke again. ‘Bee, I know you think me strict and perhaps cold. But we are sisters, and I so nearly lost you. You cannot imagine how helpless I felt, all through my pregnancy. How I wondered if my baby would ever know you. How Riddle tormented himself that he had not remained there with you. We have you back. We have lost our father. I will not lose you.’

  I bobbed a nod to that, turned, and quietly left the chamber. I shut the door behind me. Then I ran as swiftly as I could through the corridors. First, to find Beloved. He could get us through a Skill-pillar. And he owed me some answers. How was it he had told me my father was dead, and now I learned he was not dead, but dying? My anger with him burned hotter, but I knew I would need him. Then I’d find Per. Nettle had not said I could not go, only that she would not take me.

 
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