Assassins Apprentice: The Illustrated Edition | Chapter 14 of 53

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“Has not agreed with me, nor been pleased with me for some years. I scarcely notice it anymore, Regal. She will flap and squawk and tell me again that she would return to Farrow, to be Duchess there, and you Duke after her. And if very angry, she will threaten that if she did, Tilth and Farrow would rise up in rebellion, and become a separate kingdom, with her as the Queen.”

“And I as King after her!” Regal added defiantly.

Shrewd nodded to himself. “Yes, I thought she had planted such festering treason in your mind. Listen, boy. She may scold and fling crockery at the servants, but she will never do more than that. Because she knows it is better to be Queen of a peaceful kingdom than Duchess of a Duchy in rebellion. And Farrow has no reason to rise up against me, save the ones she invents in her head. Her ambitions have always exceeded her abilities.” He paused, and looked directly at Regal. “In royalty, that is a most lamentable failing.”

I could feel the waves of anger Regal suppressed as he looked at the floor.

“Come along,” the King said, and Regal heeled after him, obedient as any hound. But the parting glance he cast me was venomous.

I stood and watched as the old King departed the hall. I felt an echoing loss. Strange man. Bastard though I was, he could have declared himself my grandfather, and had for the asking what he instead chose to buy. At the door, the pale Fool paused. For an instant he looked back at me and made an incomprehensible gesture with his narrow hands. It could have been an insult or a blessing. Or simply the fluttering of a fool’s hands. Then he smiled, waggled his tongue at me, and turned to hurry after the King.

Despite the King’s promises, I stuffed my jerkin front with sweet cakes. The pups and I shared them all in the shade behind the stables. It was a bigger breakfast than any of us were accustomed to, and my stomach murmured unhappily for hours afterward. The pups curled up and slept, but I wavered between dread and anticipation. Almost I hoped that nothing would come of it, that the King would forget his words to me. But he did not.

Late that evening I finally wandered up the steps and let myself into Burrich’s chamber. I had spent the day pondering what the morning’s words might mean for me. I could have saved myself the trouble. For as I entered, Burrich set aside the bit of harness he was mending and focused all his attention on me. He considered me in silence for a bit, and I returned his stare. Something had changed, and I feared. Ever since he had disappeared Nosy, I had believed that Burrich had the power of life and death over me as well; that a fitz could be disposed of as easily as a pup. That hadn’t stopped me from developing a feeling of closeness for him; one needn’t love in order to depend. That sense of being able to rely on Burrich was the only real stability I had in my life, and now I felt it trembling under me.

“So.” He spoke at last, and put a finality into the word. “So. You had to put yourself before his eyes, did you? Had to call attention to yourself. Well. He’s decided what to do with you.” He sighed, and his silence changed. For a brief time I almost felt he pitied me. But after a bit he spoke.

“I’m to choose a horse for you tomorrow. He suggested that it be a young one, that I train you up together. But I talked him into starting you with an older, steadier beast. One student at a time, I told him. But I’ve my own reasons for putting you with an animal that’s…less impressionable. See that you behave; I’ll know if you’re playing about. Do we understand one another?”

I gave him a quick nod.

“Answer, Fitz. You’ll have to use your tongue, if you’ll be dealing with tutors and masters.”

“Yes, sir.”

It was so like Burrich. Entrusting a horse to me had been uppermost in his mind. With his own concern attended to, he announced the rest quite casually.

“You’ll be up with the sun from now on, boy. You’ll learn from me in the morning. Caring for a horse, and mastering it. And how to hunt your hounds properly, and have them mind you. A man’s way of controlling beasts is what I’ll teach you.” The last he emphasized heavily and paused to be sure I understood. My heart sank, but I began a nod, then amended it to “Yes, sir.”

“Afternoons, they’ve got you. For weapons and such. Probably the Skill, eventually. In winter months, there will be indoor learning. Languages and signs. Writing and reading and numbers, I don’t doubt. Histories, too. What you’ll do with it all, I’ve no idea, but mind you learn it well to please the King. He’s not a man to displease, let alone cross. Wisest course of all is not to have him notice you. But I didn’t warn you about that, and now it’s too late.”

He cleared his throat suddenly and took a breath. “Oh, and there’s another thing that’s to change.” He took up the bit of leather he’d been working on and bent over it again. He seemed to speak to his fingers. “You’ll have a proper room of your own now. Up in the keep where all those of noble blood sleep. You’d be sleeping there right now, if you’d bothered to come in on time.”

“What? I don’t understand. A room?”

“Oh, so you can be swift spoken, when you’ve a mind? You heard me, boy. You’ll have a room of your own, up at the keep.” He paused, then went on heartily, “I’ll finally get my privacy back. Oh, and you’re to be measured for clothes tomorrow as well. And boots. Though what’s the sense of putting a boot on a foot that’s still growing, I don’t—”

“I don’t want a room up there.” As oppressive as living with Burrich had become, I suddenly found it preferable to the unknown. I imagined a large, cold stone room, with shadows lurking in the corners.

“Well, you’re to have one,” Burrich announced relentlessly. “And it’s time and past time for it. You’re Chivalry’s get, even if you’re not a proper-born son, and to put you down here in the stable, like a stray pup, well, it’s just not fitting.”

“I don’t mind it,” I ventured desperately.

Burrich lifted his eyes and regarded me sternly. “My, my. Positively chatty tonight, aren’t we?”

I lowered my eyes from his. “You live down here,” I pointed out sullenly. “You aren’t a stray pup.”

“I’m not a prince’s bastard, either,” he said tersely. “You’ll live in the keep now, Fitz, and that’s all.”

I dared to look at him. He was speaking to his fingers again.

“I’d rather I was a stray pup,” I made bold to say. And then all my fears broke my voice as I added, “You wouldn’t let them do this to a stray pup, changing everything all at once. When they gave the bloodhound puppy to Lord Grimbsy, you sent your old shirt with it so it would have something that smelled of home until it settled in.”

“Well,” he said, “I didn’t…come here, Fitz. Come here, boy.”

And puppylike, I went to him, the only master I had, and he thumped me lightly on the back and rumpled up my hair, very much as if I had been a hound.

“Don’t be scared, now. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And, anyway,” he said, and I heard him relenting, “they’ve only told us that you’re to have a room up at the keep. No one’s said that you’ve got to sleep in it every night. Some nights, if things are a bit too quiet for you, you can find your way down here. Ey, Fitz? Does that sound right to you?”

“I suppose so,” I muttered.


CHANGE RAINED FAST AND furious on me for the next fortnight. Burrich had me up at dawn, and I was tubbed and scrubbed, the hair cut back from my eyes and the rest bound down my back in a tail such as I had seen on the older men of the keep. He told me to dress in the best clothing I had, then clicked his tongue over how small it had become on me. With a shrug he said it would have to do.

Then it was into the stables, where he showed me the mare that now was mine. She was gray, with a hint of dapple in her coat. Her mane and tail, nose and stockings were blackened as if she’d gotten into soot. And that, too, was her name. She was a placid beast, well shaped and well cared for. A less challenging mount would be hard to imagine. Boyish, I had hoped for at least a spirited gelding. But Sooty was my mount instead. I tried to conceal my disappointment, but Burrich must have sensed it. “You don’t think she’s much, do you? Well, how much of a horse did you have yesterday, Fitz, that you’d turn up your nose at a willing, healthy beast like Sooty? She’s with foal by that nasty bay stallion of Lord Temperance, so see you treat her gently. Cob’s had her training until now; he’d hoped to make a chase horse out of her. But I decided she’d suit you better. He’s a bit put out over it, but I’ve promised him he can start over with the foal.”

Burrich had adapted an old saddle for me, vowing that regardless of what the King might say, I’d have to show myself a horseman before he’d let a new one be made for me. Sooty stepped out smoothly and answered the reins and my knees promptly. Cob had done wonderfully with her. Her temperament and mind reminded me of a quiet pond. If she had thoughts, they were not about what we were doing, and Burrich was watching me too closely for me to risk trying to know her mind. So I rode her blind, talking to her only through my knees and the reins and the shifting of my weight. The physical effort of it exhausted me long before my first lesson was over, and Burrich knew it. But that did not mean he excused me from cleaning and feeding her, and then cleaning my saddle and tack. Every tangle was out of her mane, and the old leather shone with oil before I was allowed to go to the kitchens and eat, myself.

But as I darted away to the kitchen’s back door, Burrich’s hand fell on my shoulder.

“No more of that for you,” he told me firmly. “That’s fine for men-at-arms and gardeners and such. But there’s a hall where the high folk, and their special servants, eat. And that is where you eat now.”

And so saying, he propelled me into a dim room dominated by a long table, with another, higher table at the head of it. There were all manner of foods set out upon it, and folk busy at various stages of their meals. For when the King and Queen and Princes were absent from the high table, as was the case today, no one stood upon formalities.

Burrich nudged me to a place on the left side of the table, above the midpoint but not by much. He himself ate on the same side, but lower. I was hungry, and no one was staring hard enough to unnerve me, so I made short work of a largish meal. Food pilfered directly from the kitchen had been hotter and fresher. But such matters do not count for much to a growing boy, and I ate well after my empty morning.

My stomach full, I was thinking of a certain sandy embankment, warmed by the afternoon sun and replete with rabbit holes, where the hound pups and I often spent sleepy afternoons. I started to rise from the table, but immediately there was a boy behind me, saying, “Master?”

I looked around to see who he was speaking to, but everyone else was busy at trenchers. He was taller than I was, and older by several summers, so I stared up at him in amazement when he looked me in the eye and repeated, “Master? Have you finished eating?”

I bobbed my head in a nod, too surprised to speak.

“Then you’re to come with me. Hod’s sent me. You’re expected for weapons practice on the court this afternoon. If Burrich is finished with you, that is.”

Burrich suddenly appeared by my side and astonished me by going down on one knee beside me. He tugged my jerkin straight and smoothed my hair back as he spoke.

“As finished as I’m likely to be for a while. Well, don’t look so startled, Fitz. Did you think the King was not a man of his word? Wipe your mouth and be on your way. Hod is a sterner master than I am; tardiness will not be tolerated on the weapons court. Hurry along with Brant, now.”

I obeyed him with a sinking heart. As I followed the boy from the hall I tried to imagine a master stricter than Burrich. It was a frightening idea.

Once outside the hall, the boy quickly dropped his fine manners. “What’s your name?” he demanded as he led me down the graveled pathway to the armory and the practice courts that fronted it.

I shrugged and glanced aside, pretending a sudden interest in the shrubbery that bordered the path.

Brant snorted knowingly. “Well, they got to call you something. What’s old game-leg Burrich call you?”

The boy’s obvious disdain for Burrich so surprised me that I blurted out, “Fitz. He calls me Fitz.”

“Fitz?” He snickered. “Yeah, he would. Direct spoken is the old gimper.”

“A boar savaged his leg,” I explained. This boy spoke as if Burrich’s limp were something foolish he did for show. For some reason, I felt stung by his mockery.

“I know that!” He snorted disdainfully. “Ripped him right down to the bone. Big old tusker, was going to take Chiv down, until Burrich got in the way. Got Burrich instead, and half a dozen of the hounds, is what I hear.” We went through an opening in an ivy-covered wall, and the exercise courts suddenly spread out before us. “Chiv had gone in thinking he just had to finish the pig, when up it jumped and came after him. Snapped the Prince’s lance turning on him, too, is what I hear.”

I’d been following at the boy’s heels, hanging on his words, when he suddenly rounded on me. I was so startled I all but fell, scrambling backward. The older boy laughed at me. “Guess it must have been Burrich’s year for taking on Chivalry’s fortunes, hey? That’s what I hear the men saying. That Burrich took Chivalry’s death and changed it into a lame leg for himself, and that he took on Chiv’s bastard, and made a pet of him. What I’d like to know is, how come you’re to have arms training all of a sudden? Yes, and a horse, too, from what I hear?”

There was something more than jealousy in his tone. I have since come to know that many men always see another’s good fortune as a slight to themselves. I felt his rising hostility as if I’d entered a dog’s territory unannounced. But a dog I could have touched minds with and reassured of my intentions. With Brant there was only the hostility, like a storm rising. I wondered if he was going to hit me, and if he expected me to fight back or retreat. I had nearly decided to run when a portly figure dressed all in gray appeared behind Brant and took a firm grip on the back of his neck.

“I hear the King said he was to have training, yes, and a horse to learn horsemanship on. And that is enough for me, and it should be more than enough for you, Brant. And from what I hear, you were told to fetch him here, and then to report to Master Tullume, who has errands for you. Isn’t that what you heard?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Brant’s pugnaciousness was suddenly transformed into bobbing agreement.

“And while you’re ‘hearing’ all this vital gossip, I might point out to you that no wise man tells all he knows. And that he who carries tales has little else in his head. Do you understand me, Brant?”

“I think so, ma’am.”

“You think so? Then I shall be plainer. Stop being a nosy little gossip and attend to your chores. Be diligent and willing, and perhaps folk will start gossiping that you are my ‘pet.’ I could see that you are kept too busy for gossip.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You, boy.” Brant was already hurrying up the path as she rounded on me. “Follow me.”

The old woman didn’t wait to see if I obeyed or not. She simply set out at a businesslike walk across the open practice fields that had me trotting to keep up. The packed earth of the field was baked hard and the sun beat down on my shoulders. Almost instantly, I was sweating. But the woman appeared to find no discomfort in her rapid pace.

She was dressed all in gray: a long dark gray overtunic, lighter gray leggings, and over all a gray apron of leather that came nearly to her knees. A gardener of some sort, I surmised, though I wondered at the soft gray boots she wore.

“I’ve been sent for lessons…with Hod,” I managed to pant out.

She nodded curtly. We reached the shade of the armory and my eyes widened gratefully after the glare of the open courts.

“I’m to be taught arms and weaponry,” I told her, just in case she had mistaken my original words.

She nodded again and pushed open a door in the barnlike structure that was the outer armory. Here, I knew, the practice weapons were kept. The good iron and steel were up in the keep itself. Within the armory was a gentle half-light, and a slight coolness, along with a smell of wood and sweat and fresh-strewn reeds. She did not hesitate, and I followed her to a rack that supported a supply of peeled poles.

“Choose one,” she told me, the first words she’d spoken since directing me to follow her.

“Hadn’t I better wait for Hod?” I asked timidly.

“I am Hod,” she replied impatiently. “Now pick yourself a stave, boy. I want a bit of time alone with you, before the others come. To see what you’re made of and what you know.”

It did not take her long to establish that I knew next to nothing and was easily daunted. After but a few knocks and parries with her own brown rod, she easily caught mine a clip that sent it spinning from my stung hands.

“Hm,” she said, not harshly nor kindly. The same sort of noise a gardener might make over a seed potato that had a bit of blight on it. I quested out toward her and found the same sort of quietness I’d encountered in the mare. She had none of Burrich’s guardedness toward me. I think it was the first time I realized that some people, like some animals, were totally unaware of my reaching out toward them. I might have quested farther into her mind, except that I was so relieved at not finding any hostility that I feared to stir any. So I stood small and still before her inspection.

“Boy, what are you called?” she demanded suddenly.

Again. “Fitz.”

She frowned at my soft words. I drew myself up straighter and spoke louder. “Fitz is what Burrich calls me.”

She flinched slightly. “He would. Calls a bitch a bitch, and a bastard a bastard, does Burrich. Well…I suppose I see his reasons. Fitz you are, and Fitz you’ll be called by me as well. Now. I shall show you why the pole you selected was too long for you, and too thick. And then you shall select another.”

And she did, and I did, and she took me slowly through an exercise that seemed infinitely complex then, but by the end of the week was no more difficult than braiding my horse’s mane. We finished just as the rest of her students came trooping in. There were four of them, all within a year or two of my age, but all more experienced than I. It made for an awkwardness, as there were now an odd number of students, and no one particularly wanted the new one as a sparring partner.

Somehow I survived the day, though the memory of how fades into a blessedly vague haze. I remember how sore I was when she finally dismissed us; how the others raced up the path and back to the keep while I trailed dismally behind them, berating myself for ever coming to the King’s attention. It was a long climb to the keep, and the hall was crowded and noisy. I was too weary to eat much. Stew and bread, I think, were all I had, and I had left the table and was limping toward the door, thinking only of the warmth and quiet of the stables, when Brant again accosted me.

“Your chamber is ready,” was all he said.

I shot a desperate look at Burrich, but he was engaged in conversation with the man next to him. He didn’t notice my plea at all. So once more I found myself following Brant, this time up a wide flight of stone steps, into a part of the keep I had never explored.

We paused on a landing and he took up a candelabra from a table there and kindled its tapers. “Royal family lives down this wing,” he casually informed me. “The King has a bedroom big as the stable at the end of this hallway.” I nodded, blindly believing all he told me, though I later found that an errand boy such as Brant would never have penetrated the royal wing. That would be for more important lackeys. Up another flight he took me and again paused. “Visitors get rooms here,” he said, gesturing with the light, so that the wind of his motion set the flames to streaming. “Important ones, that is.”

And up another flight we went, the steps perceptibly narrowing from the first two. At the next landing we paused again, and I looked with dread up an even narrower and steeper flight of steps. But Brant did not take me that way. Instead we went down this new wing, three doors down, and then he slid a latch on a plank door and shouldered it open. It swung heavily and not smoothly. “Room hasn’t been used in a while,” he observed cheerily. “But now it’s yours and you’re welcome to it.” And with that he set the candelabra down on a chest, plucked one candle from it, and left. He pulled the heavy door closed behind him as he went, leaving me in the semidarkness of a large and unfamiliar room.

Somehow I refrained from running after him or opening the door. Instead, I took up the candelabra and lit the wall sconces. Two other sets of candles set the shadows writhing back into the corners. There was a fireplace with a pitiful effort at a fire in it. I poked it up a bit, more for light than for heat, and set to exploring my new quarters.

It was a simple square room with a single window. Stone walls, of the same stone as that under my feet, were softened only by a tapestry hung on one wall. I held my candle high to study it, but could not illuminate much. I could make out a gleaming and winged creature of some sort, and a kingly personage in supplication before it. I was later informed it was King Wisdom being befriended by the Elderling. At the time it seemed menacing to me. I turned aside from it.

Someone had made a perfunctory effort at freshening the room. There was a scattering of clean reeds and herbs on the floor, and the feather bed had a fat, freshly shaken look to it. The two blankets on it were good wool. The bed curtains had been pulled back and the chest and bench that were the other furnishings had been dusted. To my inexperienced eyes, it was a rich room indeed. A real bed, with coverings and hangings about it, and a bench with a cushion to it, and a chest to put things in were more furniture than I could recall having to myself before. That they were for my exclusive use made them larger somehow. There was also the fireplace, that I boldly added another piece of wood to, and the window, with an oak seat before it, shuttered now against the night air, but probably looking out over the sea.

The chest was a simple one, cornered with brass fittings. The outside of it was dark, but when I opened it, the interior was light-colored and fragrant. Inside the chest I found my limited wardrobe, brought up from the stables. Two nightshirts had been added to it, and a woolen blanket was rolled up in the corner of the chest. That was all. I took out a nightshirt and closed the chest.

I set the nightshirt down on the bed and then clambered up myself. It was early to be thinking of sleep, but my body ached and there seemed nothing else for me to do. Down in the stable room, by now Burrich would be sitting and drinking and mending harness or whatever. There would be a fire in the hearth, and the muffled sounds of horses as they shifted in their stalls below. The room would smell of leather and oil and Burrich himself, not dank stone and dust. I pulled the nightshirt over my head and nudged my clothes to the foot of the bed. I nestled into the feather bed; it was cool and my skin stood up in goose bumps. Slowly my body heat warmed it and I began to relax. It had been a full and strenuous day. Every muscle I possessed seemed to be both aching and tired. I knew I should rise once more, to put the candles out, but I could not summon the energy. Nor the willpower to blow them out and let a deeper darkness flood the chamber. So I drowsed, half-lidded eyes watching the struggling flames of the small hearth fire. I idly wished for something else, for any situation that was neither this forsaken chamber nor the tenseness of Burrich’s room. For a restfulness that perhaps I had once known somewhere else but could no longer recall. And so I drowsed into oblivion.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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