Assassins Apprentice: The Illustrated Edition | Chapter 22 of 53

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Chapter

7

An Assignment

There were rumors of poison when Queen Desire died. I choose to put in writing here what I absolutely know as truth. Queen Desire did die of poisoning, but it had been self-administered, over a long period of time, and was none of her king’s doing. Often he had tried to dissuade her from using intoxicants as freely as she did. Physicians had been consulted, as well as herbalists, but no sooner had he persuaded her to desist from one than she discovered another to try.

Toward the end of the last summer of her life, she became even more reckless, using several kinds simultaneously and no longer making any attempts to conceal her habits. Her behaviors were a great trial for Shrewd, for when she was drunk with wine or incensed with smoke, she would make wild accusations and inflammatory statements with no heed at all as to who was present or what the occasion was. One would have thought that her excesses toward the end of her life would have disillusioned her followers. To the contrary, they declared either that Shrewd had driven her to self-destruction or poisoned her himself. But I can say with complete knowledge that her death was not of the King’s doing.


Burrich cut my hair for mourning. He left it only a finger’s width long. He shaved his own head, even his beard and eyebrows, for his grief. The pale parts of his head contrasted sharply with his ruddy cheeks and nose; it made him look very strange, stranger even than the forest men who came to town with their hair stuck down with pitch and their teeth dyed red and black. Children stared at those wild men and whispered to one another behind their hands as they passed, but they cringed silently from Burrich. I think it was his eyes. I’ve seen holes in a skull that had more life in them than Burrich’s eyes had during those days.

Regal sent a man to rebuke Burrich for shaving his head and cutting my hair. That was mourning for a crowned king, not for a man who had abdicated the throne. Burrich stared at the man until he left. Verity cut a hand’s width from his hair and beard, as that was mourning for a brother. Some of the keep guards cut varying lengths from their braided queues, as a fighting man does for a fallen comrade. But what Burrich had done to himself and to me was extreme. People stared. I wanted to ask him why I should mourn for a father I had never even seen, for a father who had never come to see me, but a look at his frozen eyes and mouth and I hadn’t dared. No one mentioned to Regal the mourning lock he cut from each horse’s mane, or the stinking fire that consumed all the sacrificial hair. I had a sketchy idea that meant Burrich was sending parts of our spirits along with Chivalry’s; it was some custom he had from his grandmother’s people.

It was as if Burrich had died. A cold force animated his body, performing all his tasks flawlessly but without warmth or satisfaction. Underlings who had formerly vied for the briefest nod of praise from him now turned aside from his glance, as if shamed for him. Only Vixen did not forsake him. The old bitch slunk after him wherever he went, unrewarded by any look or touch, but always there. I hugged her once, in sympathy, and even dared to quest toward her, but I encountered only a numbness frightening to touch minds with. She grieved with her master.

The winter storms cut and snarled around the cliffs. The days possessed a lifeless cold that denied any possibility of spring. Chivalry was buried at Withywoods. There was a Grieving Fast at the keep, but it was brief and subdued. It was more an observation of correct form than a true Grieving. Those who truly mourned him seemed to be judged guilty of poor taste. His public life should have ended with his abdication; how tactless of him to draw further attention to himself by actually dying.

A full week after my father died I awoke to the familiar draft from the secret staircase and the yellow light that beckoned me. I rose and hastened up the stairs to my refuge. It would be good to get away from all the strangeness, to mingle herbs and make strange smokes with Chade again. I needed no more of the odd suspension of self that I’d felt since I’d heard of Chivalry’s death.

But the worktable end of his chamber was dark, its hearth was cold. Instead, Chade was seated before his own fire. He beckoned to me to sit beside his chair. I sat and looked up at him, but he was staring at the fire. He lifted his scarred hand and let it come to rest on my quillish hair. For a while we just sat like that, watching the fire together.

“Well, here we are, my boy,” he said at last, and then nothing more, as if he had said all he needed to. He ruffled my short hair.

“Burrich cut my hair,” I told him suddenly.

“So I see.”

“I hate it. It prickles against my pillow and I can’t sleep. My hood won’t stay up. And I look stupid.”

“You look like a boy mourning his father.”

I was silent a moment. I had thought of my hair as being a longer version of Burrich’s extreme cut. But Chade was right. It was the length for a boy mourning his father, not a subject mourning a king. That only made me angrier.

“But why should I mourn him?” I asked Chade as I hadn’t dared to ask Burrich. “I didn’t even know him.”

“He was your father.”

“He got me on some woman. When he found out about me, he left. A father. He never cared about me.” I felt defiant finally saying it out loud. It made me furious, Burrich’s deep wild mourning and now Chade’s quiet sorrow.

“You don’t know that. You only hear what the gossips say. You aren’t old enough to understand some things. You’ve never seen a wild bird lure predators away from its young by pretending to be injured.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said, but I suddenly felt less confident saying it. “He never did anything to make me think he cared about me.”

Chade turned to look at me and his eyes were older, sunken and red. “If you had known he’d cared, so would others. When you are a man, maybe you’ll understand just how much that cost him. To not know you in order to keep you safe. To make his enemies ignore you.”

“Well, I’ll ‘not know’ him to the end of my days, now,” I said sulkily.

Chade sighed. “And the end of your days will come a great deal later than they would have had he acknowledged you as an heir.” He paused, then asked cautiously, “What do you want to know about him, my boy?”

“Everything. But how would you know?” The more tolerant Chade was, the more surly I felt.

“I’ve known him all his life. I’ve…worked with him. Many times. Hand in glove, as the saying goes.”

“Were you the hand or the glove?”

No matter how rude I was, Chade refused to get angry. “The hand,” he said after a brief consideration. “The hand that moves unseen, cloaked by the velvet glove of diplomacy.”

“What do you mean?” Despite myself, I was intrigued.

“Things can be done.” Chade cleared his throat. “Things can happen that make diplomacy easier. Or that make a party more willing to negotiate. Things can happen….”

My world turned over. Reality burst on me as suddenly as a vision, the fullness of what Chade was and what I was to be. “You mean one man can die, and his successor can be easier to negotiate with because of it. More amenable to our cause, because of fear or because of…”

“Gratitude. Yes.”

A cold horror shook me as all the pieces suddenly fell into place. All the lessons and careful instructions and this is what they led to. I started to rise, but Chade’s hand suddenly gripped my shoulder.

“Or a man can live, two years or five or a decade longer than any thought he could, and bring the wisdom and tolerance of age to the negotiations. Or a babe can be cured of a strangling cough, and the mother suddenly see with gratitude that what we offer can be beneficial to all involved. The hand doesn’t always deal death, my boy. Not always.”

“Often enough.”

“I never lied to you about that.” I heard two things in Chade’s voice that I had never heard before. Defensiveness. And hurt. But youth is merciless.

“I don’t think I want to learn anymore from you. I think I’m going to go to Shrewd and tell him to find someone else to kill people for him.”

“That is your decision to make. But I advise you against it, for now.”

His calmness caught me off guard. “Why?”

“Because it would negate all Chivalry tried to do for you. It would draw attention to you. And right now, that is not a good idea.” His words came ponderously slow, freighted with truth.

“Why?” I found I was whispering.

“Because some will be wanting to write finis to Chivalry’s story completely. And that would be best done by eliminating you. Those ones will be watching how you react to your father’s death. Does it give you ideas and make you restless? Will you become a problem now, the way he was?”

“What?”

“My boy,” he said, and pulled me close against his side. For the first time I heard the possession in his words. “It is a time for you to be quiet and careful. I understand why Burrich cut your hair, but in truth I wish he had not. I wish no one had been reminded that Chivalry was your father. You are such a hatchling yet…but listen to me. For now, change nothing that you do. Wait six months, or a year. Then decide. But for now—”

“How did my father die?”

Chade’s eyes searched my face. “Did you not hear that he fell from a horse?”

“Yes. And I heard Burrich curse the man who told it, saying that Chivalry would not fall, nor would that horse throw him.”

“Burrich needs to guard his tongue.”

“Then how did my father die?”

“I don’t know. But like Burrich, I do not believe he fell from a horse.” Chade fell silent. I sank down to sit by his bony bare feet and stare into his fire.

“Are they going to kill me, too?”

He was silent a long while. “I don’t know. Not if I can help it. I think they must first convince King Shrewd it is necessary. And if they do that, I shall know of it.”

“Then you think it comes from within the keep.”

“I do.” Chade waited long, but I was silent, refusing to ask. He answered anyway. “I knew nothing of it before it happened. I had no hand in it in any way. They didn’t even approach me about it. Probably because they know I would have done more than just refuse. I would have seen to it that it never happened.”

“Oh.” I relaxed a little. But already he had trained me too well in the ways of court thinking. “Then they probably won’t come to you if they decide they want me done. They’d be afraid of your warning me as well.”

He took my chin in his hand and turned my face so that I looked into his eyes. “Your father’s death should be all the warning you need, now or ever. You’re a bastard, boy. We’re always a risk and a vulnerability. We’re always expendable. Except when we are an absolute necessity to their own security. I’ve taught you quite a bit, these last few years. But hold this lesson closest and keep it always before you. If ever you make it so they don’t need you, they will kill you.”

I looked at him wide-eyed. “They don’t need me now.”

“Don’t they? I grow old. You are young, and tractable, with the face and bearing of the royal family. As long as you don’t show any inappropriate ambitions, you’ll be fine.” He paused, then carefully emphasized, “We are the King’s, boy. His exclusively, in a way perhaps you have not thought about. No one knows what I do and most have forgotten who I am. Or was. If any know of us, it is from the King.”

I sat putting it cautiously together. “Then…you said it came from within the keep. But if you were not used, then it was not from the King….The Queen!” I said it with sudden certainty.

Chade’s eyes guarded his thoughts. “That’s a dangerous assumption to make. Even more dangerous if you think you must act on it in some way.”

“Why?”

Chade sighed. “When you spring to an idea, and decide it is truth, without evidence, you blind yourself to other possibilities. Consider them all, boy. Perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps Chivalry was killed by someone he had offended at Withywoods. Perhaps it had nothing to do with him being a prince. Or perhaps the King has another assassin, one I know nothing about, and it was the King’s own hand against his son.”

“You don’t believe any of those,” I said with certainty.

“No. I don’t. Because I have no evidence to declare them truth. Just as I have no evidence to say your father’s death was the Queen’s hand striking.”

That is all I remember of our conversation then. But I am sure that Chade had deliberately led me to consider who might have acted against my father, to instill in me a greater wariness of the Queen. I held the thought close to me, and not just in the days that immediately followed. I kept myself to my chores, and slowly my hair grew, and by the beginning of real summer all seemed to have returned to normal. Once every few weeks I would find myself sent off to town on errands. I soon came to see that no matter who sent me, one or two items on the list wound up in Chade’s quarters, so I guessed who was behind my little bouts of freedom. I did not manage to spend time with Molly every time I went to town, but it was enough for me that I would stand outside the window of her shop until she noticed me, and at least exchange a nod. Once I heard someone in the market talking about the quality of her scented candles, and how no one had made such a pleasant and healthful taper since her mother’s day. And I smiled for her and was glad.

Summer came, bringing warmer weather to our coasts, and with it the Outislanders. Some came as honest traders, with cold lands’ goods to trade—furs and amber and ivory and kegs of oil—and tall tales to share, ones that still could prickle my neck just as they had when I was small. Our sailors did not trust them, and called them spies and worse. But their goods were rich, and the gold they brought to purchase our wines and grains was solid and heavy, and our merchants took it.

And other Outislanders also visited our shores, though not too close to Buckkeep hold. They came with knives and torches, with bows and rams, to plunder and rape the same villages they had been plundering and raping for years. Sometimes it seemed an elaborate and bloody contest, they to find villages unaware or underarmed and for us to lure them in with seemingly vulnerable targets and then slaughter and plunder the pirates themselves. But if it were a contest, it went very badly for us that summer. My every visit to town was heavy with the news of destruction and the mutterings of the people.

Up at the keep, among the men-at-arms, there was a collective feeling of doltishness that I shared. The Outislanders eluded our patrol ships with ease and never fell into our traps. They struck where we were undermanned and least expecting it. Most discomfited of all was Verity, for to him had fallen the task of defending the kingdom once Chivalry had abdicated. I heard it muttered in the taverns that since he had lost his elder brother’s good counsel, all had gone sour. No one spoke against Verity yet; but it was unsettling that no one spoke out strongly for him either.

Boyishly, I viewed the raids as a thing impersonal to me. Certainly they were bad things, and I felt sorry in a vague way for those villagers whose homes were torched or plundered. But secure at Buckkeep, I had very little feeling for the constant fear and vigilance that other seaports endured, or for the agonies of villagers who rebuilt each year, only to see their efforts torched the next. I was not to keep my ignorant innocence long.

I went down to Burrich for my “lesson” one morning, though I spent as much time doctoring animals and teaching young colts and fillies as I did in being taught. I had very much taken over Cob’s place in the stables, while he had gone on to being Regal’s groom and dog man. But that day, to my surprise, Burrich took me upstairs to his room and sat me down at his table. I dreaded spending a tedious morning repairing tack.

“I’m going to teach you manners today,” Burrich announced suddenly. There was doubt in his voice, as if he were skeptical of my ability to learn such.

“With horses?” I asked incredulously.

“No. You’ve those already. With people. At table, and afterward, when folk sit and talk with one another. Those sorts of manners.”

“Why?”

Burrich frowned. “Because for reasons I don’t understand, you’re to accompany Verity when he goes to Neatbay to see Duke Kelvar of Rippon. Lord Kelvar has not been cooperating with Lord Shemshy in manning the coastal towers. Shemshy accuses him of leaving towers completely without watches, so that the Outislanders are able to sail past and even anchor outside of Watch Island, and from there raid Shemshy’s villages in Shoaks Duchy. Prince Verity is going to consult with Kelvar about these allegations.”

I grasped the situation completely. It was common gossip around Buckkeep Town. Lord Kelvar of Rippon Duchy had three watchtowers in his keeping. The two that bracketed the points of Neatbay were always well manned, for they protected the best harbor in Rippon Duchy. But the tower on Watch Island protected little of Rippon that was worth much to Lord Kelvar; his high and rocky coastline sheltered few villages, and would-be raiders would have a hard time keeping their ships off the rocks while raiding. His southern coast was seldom bothered. Watch Island itself was home to little more than gulls, goats, and a hefty population of clams. Yet the tower there was critical to the early defense of Southcove in Shoaks Duchy. It commanded views of both the inner and outer channels, and was placed on a natural summit that allowed its beacon fires to be easily seen from the mainland. Shemshy himself had a watchtower on Egg Island, but Egg was little more than a bit of sand that stuck up above the waves on high tide. It commanded no real view of the water, and was constantly in need of repair from the shifting of the sands and the occasional storm tide that overwhelmed it. But it could see a watch-fire warning light from Watch Island and send the message on. As long as Watch Island Tower lit such a fire.

Traditionally, the fishing grounds and clamming beaches of Watch Island were the territory of Rippon Duchy, and so the manning of the watchtower there had fallen to Rippon Duchy as well. But maintaining a garrison there meant bringing in men and their victuals, and also supplying wood and oil for the beacon fires, and maintaining the tower itself from the savage ocean storms that swept across the barren little island. It was an unpopular duty station for men-at-arms, and rumor had it that to be stationed there was a subtle form of punishment for unruly or unpolitical garrisons. More than once when in his cups, Kelvar had declaimed that if manning the tower was so important to Shoaks Duchy, then Lord Shemshy should do it himself. Not that Rippon Duchy was interested in surrendering the fishing grounds off the island or the rich shellfish beds.

So when Shoaks’s villages were raided, without warning, in an early-spring spree that destroyed all hopes of the fields being planted on time, as well as saw most of the pregnant sheep either slaughtered, stolen, or scattered, Lord Shemshy had protested loudly to the King that Kelvar had been lax in manning his towers. Kelvar denied it, and asserted that the small force he had installed there was suitable for a location that seldom needed to be defended. “Watchers, not soldiers, are what Watch Island Tower requires,” he had declared. And for that purpose, he had recruited a number of elderly men and women to man the tower. A handful of them had been soldiers, but most were refugees from Neatbay; debtors and pickpockets and aging whores, some declared, while supporters of Kelvar asserted they were but elderly citizens in need of secure employment.

All this I knew better from tavern gossip and Chade’s political lectures than Burrich could imagine. But I bit my tongue and sat through his detailed and strained explanation. Not for the first time I realized he considered me slightly slow. My silences he mistook for a lack of wit rather than a lack of any need to speak.

So now, laboriously, Burrich began to instruct me in the manners that, he told me, most other boys picked up simply by being around their elders. I was to greet people when I first encountered them each day, or if I walked into a room and found it occupied; melting silently away was not polite. I should call folk by their names, and if they were older than me or of higher political station, as, he reminded me, almost anyone I met on this journey would be, I should address them by title as well. Then he inundated me with protocol; who could precede me out of a room, and under what circumstances (almost anyone, and under almost all conditions, had precedent over me). And on to the manners of the table. To pay attention to where I was seated; to pay attention to whoever occupied the high seat at that table and pace my dining accordingly; how to drink a toast, or a series of toasts, without overindulging myself. And how to speak engagingly, or more likely, to listen attentively, to whoever might be seated near me at dinner. And on. And on. Until I began to daydream wistfully of endlessly cleaning tack.

Burrich recalled my attention with a sharp poke. “And you’re not to do that, either. You look an imbecile, sitting there nodding with your mind elsewhere. Don’t fancy no one notices when you do that. And don’t glare like that when you’re corrected. Sit up straight, and put a pleasant expression on your face. Not a vacuous smile, you dolt. Ah, Fitz, what am I to do with you? How can I protect you when you invite troubles on yourself? And why do they want to take you off like this anyway?”

The last two questions, put to himself, betrayed his real concern. Perhaps I was a trifle stupid not to have seen it. He wasn’t going. I was. For no good reason that he could discern. Burrich had lived long enough near court to be very cautious. For the first time since he had been entrusted with my care, I was being removed from his watchfulness. It had not been so long since my father had been buried. And so he wondered, though he didn’t dare say, whether I would be coming back or if someone was making the opportunity to quietly dispose of me. I realized what a blow to his pride and reputation it would be if I were to be “vanished.” So I sighed, and then carefully commented that perhaps they wanted an extra hand with the horses and dogs. Verity went nowhere without Leon, his wolfhound. Only two days before he had complimented me on how well I managed him. This I repeated to Burrich, and it was gratifying to see how well this small subterfuge worked. Relief flooded his face, then pride that he had taught me well. The topic instantly shifted from manners to the correct care of the wolfhound. If the lectures on manners had wearied me, the repetition of hound lore was almost painfully tedious. When he released me to go to my other lessons, I left with winged feet.

I went through the rest of the day in a distracted haze that had Hod threatening me with a good whipping if I didn’t attend to what I was doing. Then she shook her head over me, sighed, and told me to run along and come back when I had a mind again. I was only too happy to obey her. The thought of actually leaving Buckkeep and journeying, journeying all the way to Neatbay was all I could fit inside my head. I knew I should wonder why I was going, but felt sure Chade would advise me soon. Would we go by land or by sea? I wished I had asked Burrich. The roads to Neatbay were not the best, I’d heard, but I wouldn’t mind. Sooty and I had never been on a long journey together. But a sea trip, on a real ship…

I took the long way back to the keep, up a path that went through a lightly wooded bit of rocky hillside. Paper birches struggled there, and a few alder, but mostly it was nondescript brush. Sunlight and a light breeze were playing together in the higher branches, giving the day a fey and dappled air. I lifted my eyes to the dazzle of sun through the birch leaves, and when I looked down, the King’s fool stood before me.

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

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