Assassins fate, p.96
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       Assassin's Fate, p.96

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

  I was thankful I was still dressed for riding. Trousers were much better for hiking than my ridiculous skirts. My mind raced. Could Beloved pretend that we were going on a picnic and procure food for us? Per could get horses from the stable. We’d need an extra one to bring my father home.

  You go to say goodbye, not to bring him home. Food and bedding and something for a shelter are what you should take him. It will help him sustain his life long enough to finish his task.

  I am not going to accept his death. Not again.

  A page hurried past me, then turned and came back to me. ‘Are you well, Lady Bee?’

  I realized that tears were running down my face and dripping from my chin. I wiped them hastily. ‘Dust in my eyes from my ride. Thank you for your concern. Have you seen Lord Chance this morning?’

  ‘I saw him ascending the stairs to the Queen’s Garden, the one on the rooftop of the—’

  ‘Thank you. I know where that is.’

  I changed direction and hurried away from him. But in two steps he followed me and seized me by the arm. I spun on him in a fury, shocked to be handled so. But the page suddenly was Spark. ‘What is it? What’s happened?’

  ‘I must see Lord Chance. Now.’

  She folded her lips. ‘Change your expression,’ she hissed at me. ‘Anyone who sees you will know you are defiant. Smile as if we are going on a pleasant errand, and hurry, but do not run. I will be right behind you.’

  I recovered from my shock. I wiped my face on my sleeve and stitched a smile onto my mouth. I did as she suggested. The corridors had never seemed so long. I hated the steep climb up the tower steps. Twice I stopped to breathe. I hoped he was still there. The outer door to the tower rooftop was heavy, built to withstand both the winds and the heavy snows of winter. Spark had her picks out. I flashed my key at her, and she exclaimed in surprise. Together we shoved the door open and stepped out into a pleasant day.

  High, thin clouds were scraped across a blue sky. Up here, the wind was cooler. I did not immediately see Lord Chance. The large pots full of blooming plants and statues seemed too placid and calm a place for my boiling thoughts. I followed the tiled walkway and at the end saw Beloved standing with his back toward me. He was looking landward.

  ‘Lord Chance!’ I hailed him.

  He turned to me and a hesitant smile dawned. ‘Well. I cannot recall that you have ever sought my company before, Bee. Thrice welcome!’ His voice was full of warmth and hope. Then he saw Spark behind me and his expression became one of alarm. ‘What has happened?’

  I had thought I could be calm. I could not. ‘How could you tell me my father was dead, how could you leave him? How could you leave him? How could you not go back for him?’

  ‘Bee!’ Spark rebuked me, but I ignored her.

  My words tore the smile from Beloved’s face. He looked ill and beaten. He tried for a breath, failed, and tried again. ‘Bee, Fitz is dead. You yourself said you felt that he was gone.’ He clutched his gloved hand in his bared one. ‘I felt that link break. He died. I felt it.’ His face was full of misery and shock. ‘He left me,’ he said forlornly, and my fury soared.

  ‘He’s not dead!’ I bit off every word. ‘Nighteyes says he is at the quarry, dying, riddled with parasites, just as the pale messenger died. It’s a horrible way to go. You know it. They call it the Traitor’s Death. Delivered by a dart. And you left him to it.’

  Spark gasped. ‘They shot darts at us. Before the explosion. Bee sent them running and he brushed a dart from his jerkin …’

  Hope and horror vied for possession of Beloved’s features. ‘He cannot be alive,’ he declared. But oh, how he longed to believe my father lived.

  ‘I told Nettle and Riddle. We went to see Lady Kettricken. Nettle is planning to send a coterie through to see if it’s real. She says they will bring Fitz back. But Nighteyes says he is dying, even if my father doesn’t believe it. The wolf says he should stay at the quarry and carve a dragon. He says they should not bring him back here.’

  ‘Carve a dragon?’ Spark looked very confused.

  I heard the scuff of steps and turned to see Lant and Per. Per burst out, ‘Your father lives!’ at the same moment that Lant exclaimed, ‘Thank Eda that we found you!’ But most shocking of all was when Motley swooped in, to land on Per’s shoulder and shout, ‘Fitz! Fitz! The quarry. The quarry!’

  ‘We are leaving before nightfall,’ Beloved announced. He looked out over the parapet and abruptly announced, ‘Kettricken goes with us.’

  ‘And how will we travel?’ Spark asked. She sounded sick.

  ‘As you and I did before. From the dungeon-stone to Aslevjal. From Aslevjal to the market-circle. Thence on foot to the Skill-stone quarry. Spark, I recall how it hurt you last time. You need not come.’

  ‘We have no dragon’s blood to help you make the journey.’

  ‘I have the Silver on my fingers. I believe I can do it. Any who fear the journey need not come.’

  ‘Of course I will go with you.’ She sounded bitterly defeated as she said it.

  I spoke up. ‘If he can open the stone, I know how to give Skill-strength. And I can draw it from Per, if need be.’ Per gave a grim-faced nod. Lant had not spoken, but there was sick determination on his face.

  Spark crossed her arms on her chest. ‘Kettricken is elderly and her joints give her much pain. She will never be able to keep up.’

  ‘Oh, you do not know her as I do,’ Beloved said grimly. ‘She will make that journey. I will not leave her behind.’

  Spark threw her hands in the air. ‘This is mad. And the end of my occupation here at Buckkeep. We are all risking our lives and our sanity.’ She sounded angry as she rounded on Per and Lant. ‘Why are you still standing here? Fetch all that is needful. Lord Chance, you must be the one to propose this to Kettricken. I will not.’ She shifted her attention to me. ‘You. Go about your schedule as if nothing is happening. Even to disrobing for bed tonight. Wait until we come to fetch you.’

  FORTY-EIGHT

  * * *

  Time

  There is a cage made of crawling, squirming things. Inside is something that used to be a man. A black-and-white rat looks at him, and then giggles and turns handsprings as it abandons him.

  I make no illustration for this dream. It felt as if it would be true, and I would witness it.

  Bee Farseer’s dream journal

  ‘Anything a bear can eat, a man can eat, too.’ Burrich told me that, long ago, after I died in Regal’s dungeon and before I had found myself as a human again. He was looking guardedly at a leaf-buried bear-kill we had stumbled across on one of my supervised walks. He had very hastily cut some chunks from the decomposing fawn and then we had left the bear’s cache quickly.

  Aged meat is far more tender than a fresh kill. I remembered that meat fondly. But he was correct in all aspects of what he had said. A man can eat grubs from under a rotted log, or a frog. Tender roots and the young shoots of water-grasses. Even pond scum can thicken a soup, if one has something to cook soup in. But pond algae can be eaten by the handful, along with watercress, and the roots of cattails can be roasted in a low fire. Sometimes I wondered if Verity had subsisted in the same way before Kettricken and I had arrived at the quarry to hunt real food for him.

  The morning after my wolf left me, I awoke and rubbed my sandy eyes. As I sat up, a terrible coughing spell took me. When I could gasp in a breath, I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. It left a smear of blood. I looked at it and a sad, sick certainty rose in me. Then, a terrible feeling in my mouth. Not pain. I would have preferred pain. I leaned forward and spat on the ground in front of me. Blood and saliva. And several pale squirming things, no thicker than a bowstring, no longer than a finger joint.

  Oh.

  I went to the pond, sucked in water, sloshed it through my mouth and spat on the ground. Another one.

  Small bits of information tumbled and joined in my mind. An idea threatened me. The pale messenger that Bee and I had burned. I m
ulled over that memory and then denied it. Nighteyes had insisted that I had worms. I did. That was all. I crouched down to study the creature that had lived inside me. It was a kind I had not seen before, in man or beast. But that was all it was. Just a worm. I wondered if I could be lucky enough to find wild garlic or orangeroot growing nearby. Both were good for clearing parasites from the body. But a more practical plan would be to begin my journey to the ancient market and go from there to Buck. There would be healers there.

  I scooped up more water in my hands and rubbed my face. When I dropped my hands, they were tinged pink. I touched my nostrils and looked at my fingers. No.

  I touched my fingertips to my eyes. They came away red. And with the blood on my fingertips came a sickening certainty. The messenger had wept blood. She had said the worms the Servants had infected her with were eating her eyes. That she could scarcely see any more. I lifted my eyes and looked about me. I could still see.

  But for how long?

  I had two tasks every day that I performed faithfully. I gathered more firewood, and I went to the water to drink. I longed to go to the creek to fish, but my strength was failing me. Nosebleeds were a daily occurrence now, and my back and thighs were covered with small, itching sores. The only parts of my legs that were free of the sores were where the Silver had splashed me.

  Too late I had come to agree with the wolf. I wished he would return to me so that I could tell him so. By the third day of his absence, the reduction in my stamina was something I could no longer argue with. My wolf was gone, and I knew I was never going home again. I’d made several attempts to Skill and failed at all of them. Perhaps it was the Silver on my body, or my general weakness, or the presence of so much Skill-stone around me. The reason didn’t matter. I was alone. And I had one last task to do. I had to prepare a stone for us. And hope that the wolf would return to share it with me.

  Once Nighteyes had begun the carving with my handprint it did not occur to me that it would be anything other than a wolf. Daily I toiled on our ‘dragon’, my silver hand stroking the stone, as I gave it the memories Nighteyes and I shared. I was surprised to see that the wolf emerging from the stone stood with teeth bared and hackles raised. Were the two of us, together, truly so fierce of visage? Yet even as I poured in memories of hunts and shared kills, of wild romps in the snow and mice caught in an old hut, of porcupine quills pulled and his teeth pressing hard against my back as he sheared off an arrow-shaft, I knew that I did not have enough to fill this stone flesh. I knew that when it came time to draw my last breath, I would lean on this cold creature and pass into him. And remain here, mired in stone, just as Girl-on-a-Dragon had stood for so many decades of years.

  I should have listened to him. I should have. If Nighteyes had been with me still, there might have been more of us to put into the wolf-dragon.

  He had only the colours of the stone, and that bothered me. Before I died, I wanted to once more look into those wise eyes. I wanted, a last time, to see his glance catch the firelight and gleam green and startling. I began to sleep with my back against him, as we used to do. Not that the stone gave me any warmth, but in the hopes that my dreams might permeate it and help the wolf emerge more swiftly.

  I woke in the night. There are two kinds of sleep when one is weak and cold. One is the kind where one pretends to sleep as one shivers and shifts and tries to clutch body warmth. I had wrapped my stolen cloak around me, covering my head to keep the gnats from my ears and eyes. Insects do love a dying animal. Then I had fallen into the second kind of sleep, the heavy sleep of exhaustion that cold and pain cannot break. That sleep, I think, is the precursor to death.

  Thus I came out of it slowly and reluctantly, unsure of where dream gave way to reality. Voices. Scuffing footsteps. I struggled to untangle my head from its wrapping. I didn’t stand up. But I opened my eyes and blinked dully at the startling yellow glare of a swinging lantern coming toward me.

  ‘This way, I think,’ someone said.

  ‘We should make a camp and continue in the morning. I can see nothing here.’

  ‘We are close. I know we are so close. Bee, cannot you Skill to him? He said he felt you Skill, once.’

  ‘This stone … no. I have no training. You know I have no training!’

  The light was so bright I could see nothing else. Then I made out shadows and silhouettes. People. Carrying a lantern. And packs. I feebly pushed my Wit toward them.

  ‘FITZ!’ someone shouted, and I realized I’d heard that querying call before, in my sleep, and it had wakened me. And more, that I knew the voice.

  ‘Over here,’ I called. But my voice was thin in a dry throat.

  The wolf hit me with an almost physical impact. He was a jolt to my dwindling body, almost like an infusion of Skill-strength. Oh, my brother, I could not find you to return to you. I feared we were too late. I feared you had entered the stone without me.

  I am here.

  ‘Look. Embers of a fire. He’s there! Fitz! Fitz!’

  ‘Don’t touch me!’ I cried out and clutched my Silver hand to my chest. They came to me at a run, shapes emerging out of the twilight. The Fool reached me first, but as the firelight illuminated him, he halted an arm’s length away and stared at me, his mouth hanging ajar. I looked back at him and waited.

  ‘Oh, Fitz!’ the Fool cried. ‘What did you do to yourself?’

  ‘No worse than what you have done, twice,’ I managed a twisted smile. ‘I did not choose this,’ I added feebly.

  ‘Far worse than anything I’ve ever done!’ he declared. His gaze wandered over me, lingering on the silvered side of my face. His expression was more telling than any mirror. ‘How could you do this? Why?’

  ‘I didn’t. It happened. The container of Silver. The fire-brick in my bag.’ I held up a helpless silvered hand. ‘Da!’ Bee shrieked furiously, and my watering eyes showed me Per with his arms wrapped about my younger daughter, holding her back.

  She kicked and struggled, baring her teeth. Abruptly Per said to her, ‘Bee, you are not that foolish!’ and let her go. She did not rush to me. She came in small steps, studying me carefully. Then she set her small hands onto my arm, touching flesh to flesh with no Silver between us. I could suddenly draw a deeper breath. Hope flowed in me. I could live. I could go home.

  Then I realized what she was doing. ‘Bee, no!’ I rebuked her and pulled my arm free of her grip. ‘You do not Skill strength to me.’

  But she had. ‘I have strength to spare,’ she pleaded, but I shook my head. ‘Bee. All of you. You cannot touch me now. I am carving my dragon. Our dragon, for Nighteyes and me. Everything I have, I must put into it. And I must not pull you and your strength into it.’

  The Fool set his hands, one gloved, on Bee’s shoulders. He drew her back gently, but I saw her stiffen with resentment and, for a moment, flash her teeth at his touch. Lant and Per were staring at my silvered face in something between horror and pity.

  The Fool spoke. ‘Explanations can wait. After we have built up the fire, and made hot tea and soup for Fitz. There are blankets in the big pack.’ He lifted his voice to a shout. ‘Spark! Over here!’ he cried, and I glimpsed another bobbing lantern. Then they were all unshouldering their packs. And he spoke on, of wondrous things, of hot tea with honey and smoked meat and blankets while the wolf capered joyously inside me.

  I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, other people had approached and were busying themselves with camp tasks. I sat quietly while Bee told me of their journey home, and described the shape of her life at Buckkeep Castle. The Fool orbited us at a distance, sometimes pausing to listen to some detail of Bee’s recitation, but mostly engaged in directing Lant and Per in setting up a shelter and sorting supplies from the packs. I leaned with my back on my partially-carved wolf and tried to take pleasure in what I knew was actually farewell.

  But Motley with her silver beak came and perched on my stone wolf. She cocked her head and said nothing but I thought she looked at me sadly. She whetted h
er silver beak on the stone, once, twice, and I felt something go into the wolf. The memory of a kind shepherd. A man who had taken in a freak nestling. Then she hopped into the air to land on the firewood pile.

  I was given a thick wool blanket and Per built up my fire recklessly large, and Lant fetched water for a cooking pot and a kettle. ‘Eat this,’ Spark said, and set wrapped food before me. I was surprised that she was there, but the smell of the food drove even a greeting out of my thoughts. I opened the sticky cloth. It was cold bacon, thick with grease, wrapped in a thick cut of dark bread. Lant uncorked a bottle of wine and set it within my reach. They moved about me as if I were a rabid dog that might lunge and bite, avoiding my touch as they offered me every physical comfort. I filled my belly with bread and meat, and washed down the immense half-chewed bites I took with the heady red wine.

  Spark was brewing tea in a fat kettle. Lant stirred a pot of simmering water enriched with chunks of dried beef, and carrots and potatoes. I could smell it and a deep wave of hunger left me shaking. I hugged myself against it.

  ‘Fitz. Are you in pain?’ It was the Fool asking that, in a voice fraught with guilt.

  ‘Of course I am,’ I said. ‘They are eating me, the little bastards. They eat me, and my body rebuilds itself, and they eat me afresh. I almost think it is worse after I have eaten.’

  ‘I will see to that,’ a woman said. ‘I have learned a great deal about herbs for pain. And I brought what I thought best would
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