Assassins fate, p.98
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       Assassin's Fate, p.98
 

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

  Are we finished? I asked the wolf.

  I believe so. But they may not be finished with us.

  And they were not. I went back to the wolf, muttering my tale while Bee sat near me and noted it all down. Sometimes, I saw, it was not words but a painting or an ink sketch. She did not ask questions but simply accepted the things I told her about myself and my days. I noticed her head drooping lower over her book. The next time I looked at her, she was on her side, curled around her book. Her pen had fallen from her hand and she had not stoppered her ink. But I was putting into the wolf a picnic with Molly and I could not pause.

  ‘Fitz,’ said the Fool.

  I looked down at him. He had the ink-bottle in his hand and had pushed the stopper in. I had not seen or heard him come near. I saw him set the ink to one side. He drew the book out from under Bee’s hand, and settled a blanket over her. He sat down cross-legged, his back straight, and opened the book on his lap. He began to page through it.

  ‘Does she know you do that?’ I asked.

  ‘She allows it, but not graciously. It is something I feel I must do, Fitz, for she reveals very little of herself to anyone. She told me earlier today that you had put a great many memories of me into the wolf, and that she was writing them down as well. I found that a bit alarming.’

  I took my hands from the wolf and sat down beside him. It was difficult to do. I folded my hands in my lap, Silver over Silver. So bony. Absently I stroked my hand, whetting one against the other, repairing the damage to the flesh and tendons beneath the Silver. I could do that. At a cost. He watched me do it. ‘Cannot you do that with your whole body?’

  ‘It costs me to do this. Flesh and strength from elsewhere. And already they attack me again. But I need my hands, and so I do it.’

  He turned a page, smiled and looked up at me. ‘She has written down the names of the dogs that were under the table with you the first time you saw me. You remembered all their names?’

  ‘They were my friends. Do you recall your friends’ names?’

  ‘I do,’ he said quietly. He turned a few more pages, reading swiftly, sometimes smiling, sometimes pensive. He scowled at one page, and then closed the book gently. ‘Fitz, I do not think I am the best person to be Bee’s father.’

  ‘Neither was I. But that is how things turned out.’

  He almost smiled. ‘True. She is mine. And isn’t. For she doesn’t want to be. You heard what she said. She would rather go on with no father than have me.’

  ‘She isn’t old enough to know what is best for her.’

  ‘Are you sure of that?’

  I paused to think. ‘No. But who else should I ask?’

  It was his turn to pause. ‘Perhaps no one. Or Lant?’

  ‘Lant’s life is complicated and likely to become more so.’

  ‘Hap?’

  ‘Hap will be there for her, but as her elder brother.’

  ‘Chivalry or one of Molly’s other boys?’

  ‘If they were here, I might. But they are not, and they have no concept of what she has gone through. You do. Are you asking me to release you from being her father? Because I cannot, you know. Some duties cannot be shed.’

  ‘I know,’ he said quietly.

  I felt a vague tug of alarm. ‘There is something else you’d rather be doing than staying with Bee? Something you feel called to do?’ Would he leave her as he had left me?

  ‘Yes. But in this, I take your wishes more seriously than my own.’ He blinked back tears. ‘I have made far too many decisions for both of us. Now it is time for me to accept one of yours, no matter how difficult it is for me. As you so often did.’ He leaned forward suddenly and put his hand on a paw. ‘I give you how startled you looked in the moment that King Shrewd saw you there, eating scraps with the dogs.’ After a moment, he drew his hand back from the stone wolf and shook his head as if dashing water away. ‘I’d forgotten what it felt like. Giving life to stone.’ He clasped his hands on Bee’s book and looked down at it as he said, ‘There is much more I could give you for your wolf. If you wished me to.’

  I recalled something that Nighteyes had once said to me. ‘I have no desire to see Bee fathered by a Forged One. That is what you would be if you gave up too much of yourself to this stone. Save your memories and feelings for yourself, Fool. Putting some of yourself in stone is not a good idea.’

  ‘It has been many a day since I had a good idea,’ he replied. He slid the book under Bee’s hand and quietly left my shelter.

  One night, Kettricken came to me. Despite all my warnings, she set her hand on my shoulder. ‘Stop that,’ she said. ‘You are tearing your back to shreds.’

  The itching had become an unbearable distraction, and I had picked up a piece of firewood to scratch my back. She took it from my hand and tossed it into the fire. I realized it was very late and the others were all sleeping in their shelters. ‘Who has the watch?’ I asked her.

  ‘Spark. And Lant is keeping her company.’ She spoke without judgment. I could not see either of them. Bee was curled in her blankets nearby. She had pulled a corner up over her face to keep the gnats at bay, and pulled her book in under the covers with her. I looked up. Kettricken was gone.

  Time had become so peculiar. It moved in jerks and slides now. And then Kettricken was back with a pot of something in her hand. She crouched down behind me and I heard her knees crackle. ‘In the Mountains, sometimes in winter the children had lice. Grease smothers them. I brought this with me, thinking perhaps you could be saved. Now, it may at least ease the itching.’

  ‘Don’t touch them!’ I warned her, but she had a small scoop like a little spoon.

  There were many pustules on my back, and she had me turn toward the fire and take my shirt off. The shirt surprised me. It was intact, a nice shirt. When had they put that on me?

  ‘Keep still,’ she told me, and she dabbed a touch on each sore. It was grease, goose or bear, with some fragrant herbs mixed in. Mint. Mint keeps many pests at bay. With each touch, the itching eased. She spoke in a low voice as she worked. ‘I want to go with you. I truly do. But there is Bee to think of. And we have another grandchild on the way. Elliania hopes so for a girl, but I will be content with whatever we get. Think on it, Fitz! If she is a girl, she will be a narcheska, and help secure our continuing peace with the OutIslands. And the Mountain Kingdom will be formally accepting Integrity as their Sacrifice and duke. That is part of why I will be going there. To ease that transition.’ She caught her breath and said, ‘Do you recall when we first met in the Mountains? How I tried to poison you because I thought you had come to kill my brother?’

  ‘I do.’ Something warm fell on my bare shoulder. A tear. ‘Do you weep because you wish you had succeeded?’ I asked her, and succeeded in wringing a hiccupped laugh from her.

  ‘Oh, Fitz, the changes we wrought in the world. I do wish I were going with you.’

  I’d never even considered such an idea. ‘On the way here … I lingered in the Skill-pillars. I am not sure how long. I do not remember it, but Nighteyes claimed that Verity spoke to me there. He said I would have to bid my child farewell and trust that others would raise her well. Just as he had to do.’

  ‘Oh.’ That was all she said at first. Then she added, ‘I promise. I will take her as my own. I have always wanted such a child!’

  I was startled at her offer. ‘But I have already asked the Fool to take her. Though it is hard for me to imagine him as anyone’s father.’

  She made an amused sound. ‘That is true. I expect he will make his own decision in that regard. It surprises me that he has not already.’ Then she leaned forward and fearlessly kissed my cheek. ‘In case it is my last opportunity,’ she explained. ‘Tomorrow, I am taking Spark with me to go visit Verity-as-Dragon. Try not to leave before I get back.’

  I nodded. She rose with creaking knees. I listened to the swishing of her skirts as she walked away. Then I leaned forward and carefully put the kiss into the wolf. I knew it was actually his.
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  ‘I would just like to finish this,’ I said to the Fool. I stroked the wolf’s rough stone coat. He still had no colour. The fur of his tail looked lumpy to me. His eyes needed work, and his bared teeth. The tendons in his hind legs. I closed my eyes. I needed to stop numbering what was missing.

  It was relatively quiet now. Dark had come and the cool of the Mountains night was descending. The shelter helped but the chill still reached in. I was sitting in the open front of it, leaning back on my wolf. I felt as if I must always be touching him now. For safety.

  The Fool was sitting on the ground next to me, hugging his knees and drinking a cup of tea. He set it down carefully. ‘You did not really think you would be allowed to die privately, did you?’ He flapped a long, narrow hand at the encampment that had sprung up in the quarry. There were multiple campfires and tents softly billowing in the night breeze. At the forest’s edge, someone kept watch on the picketed horses. How many people? I could not guess. More than thirty. More had arrived today. All come to watch me die.

  Dutiful had come with his Skill-coterie. Over their mother’s objections, both Integrity and Prosper had come as well. Shun had wanted to come but still had a terrible fear of Skill-pillars. Hap had talked them into bringing him, and was now lying in a tent feeling disoriented and nauseated. He had even suggested he might ride a horse home through the Mountain Kingdom rather than brave a Skill-pillar again. Integrity had liked the idea and proposed to accompany him ‘since I am soon bound for the Mountain Kingdom anyway’. Dutiful was uncertain. They were waiting for Kettricken to return from visiting Verity-as-Dragon to discuss it. I could sense Dutiful’s impatience. His wife would soon be brought to bed with their child. He should be there, not here to watch me die. Earlier I had promised, ‘I will go into the wolf as soon as I can. For now, you should just go home. There is nothing you can do here. Be with the woman you love, while you can.’

  He had looked troubled, but had not left yet.

  I did not want to ponder any of it. My body was beginning to feel like a rickety shed on a sea cliff’s edge. I still ate but there was no pleasure in it. My gums were bleeding and my nose was continually crusted with blood. The world tasted and smelled like blood. And I itched everywhere, inside and out, as new pustules erupted. I had a terrible itch in the back of my throat, and one high inside my nose. They were maddening. I felt regret for the sturdy body I had taken for granted. With my fingers and thumb, I worked a lump from Nighteyes’ tail.

  ‘What did Dutiful say to you?’ the Fool asked.

  ‘The usual. He promised to care for Nettle and Bee. He said he would miss me. That he wished I could see his third child born. Fool, I know that what he says is so important to him. It should be to me. I know that I loved him and his boys. But … there is not enough left of me to feel those things.’ I shook my weary head. ‘All of the memories that kept those connections, the wolf has taken. I fear I hurt him. I wish he would just go home and take his coterie with him.’

  He nodded slowly and took another sip of his tea. ‘So it was with Verity at the end of his days. It was hard to reach him. Did that hurt you?’

  ‘Yes. But I understood.’

  ‘And so does Dutiful. And Kettricken.’ He looked away from me. ‘So do we all.’

  He lifted his gloved hand and considered it. The first time he had silvered his fingers, it had been an accident. He had been acting as Verity’s manservant and had accidentally touched his silvered hands. ‘Fitz,’ he said suddenly. ‘Is there enough of you to fill this wolf?’

  I considered my wolf. It was a small block of memory-stone compared to what Verity had chosen, but much larger than a real wolf. The top of his shoulders was level with my chest. But somehow the size of the stone did not seem related to how much I needed to fill it. ‘I think so. I won’t know until I go into him.’

  ‘When will that be?’

  I scratched the back of my neck. My nails came back bloody. I wiped them on my thigh. ‘When I have no more to give him, I suppose. Or when I am so close to dying that I must go.’

  ‘Oh, Fitz,’ he said mournfully, as if it were the first time he had considered the idea.

  ‘It will all be for the best,’ I told him, and tried to believe it. ‘Nighteyes will be a wolf again. As will I. And Bee will have you to watch over her and—’

  ‘She doesn’t like me, I fear.’

  ‘There have been many times when Nettle or Hap disliked me, Fool.’

  ‘I might feel better if she disliked me. I don’t think she feels much one way or the other.’ In a lower voice he added, ‘I was so sure that she would love me, as I love her. I thought it would just happen, once we were near each other. It has not.’

  ‘Being loved by your children isn’t really what being a parent is about.’

  ‘I loved my parents. I loved them so terribly much.’

  ‘I have no basis of comparison,’ I pointed out to him quietly.

  ‘You had Burrich.’

  ‘Oh, yes. I had Burrich.’ I laughed grimly. ‘And eventually, we realized we loved one another. But it took some years.’

  ‘Years,’ he repeated dolefully.

  ‘Be patient,’ I counselled him. I touched one of the wolf’s toenails. They were smooth. That wasn’t right. They should be ridged. I remembered the smell of a buck’s blood on a winter dawn, and how it had clotted into tiny pink balls in the ice. I corrected the toenail.

  ‘Fitz?’

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘You were gone again.’

  ‘I was,’ I admitted.

  ‘Have you put much of me into him?’

  I thought about it. ‘I put in your room in the tower at Buckkeep, the time I climbed those broken stairs, and you were not there and I stared around in surprise at what I found. I put in the day we had the water fight in the stream, not so far from here. And that horrid song you sang to me to embarrass me in the halls of Buckkeep. And Ratsy. Ratsy is in there. And I put in treating your wounds the day Regal’s thugs put a bag over your head and beat you. And you carrying me on your back through the snow, when you did not know me.’ I smiled. ‘I know what else. I put in how you looked at me that time King Shrewd gave me his pin. I was under the table and there had been a feast. The keep dogs and I were sharing all the leftovers. And then Shrewd came in, with Regal. And you.’

  An uncertain smile had dawned on his face. ‘So you will remember me. When you are a stone wolf.’

  ‘We will remember you, Nighteyes and I.’

  He sighed. ‘Well. There is that.’

  I had to cough. I turned my head aside from him and coughed. Blood spattered the wolf, and just for an instant, before it sank in, I saw his colours as they would be. I coughed again, drew breath and coughed some more. I put my arm on the wolf and leaned my forehead on it as I coughed. If I must cough blood, let not a drop be wasted. When I could finally draw a wheezing breath, my nose was bleeding.

  Not long now, Nighteyes whispered.

  ‘Not long now,’ I agreed.

  It had been quiet for a time. Then the Fool spoke beside me. ‘Fitz. I’ve brought you something. It’s cold tea. With valerian in it. And carryme.’

  I sipped it. ‘There’s not enough carryme in there to do anything. I need more.’

  ‘I don’t dare make it stronger than it is.’

  ‘I don’t care what you dare. Add more carryme!’

  He looked shocked and for a moment, I jolted back to being Fitz as I once was. ‘Fool, I’m so sorry. But they are gnawing on every part of me, inside and out. I itch in places I can never scratch. I feel them rattle in my lungs when I draw breath. The inside of my throat is raw and all I can taste is blood.’

  He said nothing but took the cup away. I felt ashamed of myself. I put it into the wolf, enough to define the lift of his lip. I startled when the Fool spoke. ‘Careful. It’s hot now. I had to use hot water to make the carryme blend.’

  ‘Thank you.’ I took it from him and drained it. The hot tea mixed with the blood in
my mouth. I swallowed it. He took the cup quickly from my shaky hand.

  ‘Fool. What were we?’ It wasn’t an idle question. I needed to know it. I needed to finally understand it to put it in the wolf.

  ‘I don’t know.’ His reply was guarded. ‘Friends. But also Prophet and Catalyst. And in that relationship, I did use you, Fitz. You know it and I know it. I’ve told you how sorry I was to do it. I hope you believe that. And that you can forgive me.’

  His words were so intense, but that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I waved them away. ‘Yes, yes. But there was something else there. Always. You were dead, and I called you back. For that moment, when we returned to our proper bodies, as we passed one another, we …’

  We were one thing. Whole.

  He was waiting for me to continue. It seemed ridiculous that he could not hear the wolf. ‘We were one thing. A whole thing. You and I and Nighteyes. I felt a strange sort of peace. As if all the parts of me were finally in one place. All the missing bits that would make me a complete … thing.’ I shook my head. ‘Words don’t reach that far.’

  He set his gloved hand on my sleeved arm. The layers of fabric deadened that touch but it still sang in me. It was not the stunning touch he had shared with me once in Verity’s Skill-tower. I recalled that well. I’d been left huddled in a ball, for it had been too much, too overwhelming to know, so completely, another living entity. Nighteyes and I, we were simple creatures and our bonding was a simple thing. The Fool was complex, full of secrets and shadows and convoluted ideas. Even now, insulated from it, I
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