Assassins Apprentice: The Illustrated Edition | Chapter 39 of 53

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Chapter

18

Assassinations

Chade Fallstar, a personal adviser to King Shrewd, made an extensive study of Forging during the period just preceding the Red-Ship wars. From his tablets, we have the following. “Netta, the daughter of the fisherman Gill and the farmer Ryda, was taken alive from her village Goodwater on the seventeenth day after Springfest. She was Forged by the Red-Ship Raiders and returned to her village three days later. Her father was killed in the same raid, and her mother, having five younger children, was little able to deal with Netta. She was, at the time of her Forging, fourteen summers old. She came into my possession some six months after her Forging.

“When first brought to me, she was dirty, ragged, and greatly weakened due to starvation and exposure. At my direction, she was washed, clothed, and housed in chambers convenient to my own. I proceeded with her as I might have with a wild animal. Each day I brought her food with my own hands and stayed by her while she ate. I saw to it that her chambers were kept warm, her bedding clean, and that she was provided with the amenities a woman might expect: water for washing, brushes and combs, and all that is needful to a woman. In addition, I saw to it that she was furnished with sundry supplies for needlework, for I had discovered that prior to Forging, she had had a great fondness for doing such fancywork and had created several artful pieces. My intention in all this was to see if, under gentle circumstances, a Forged one might not return to a semblance of the person she had formerly been.

“Even a wild animal might have become a little tamer under these circumstances. But to all things Netta reacted with indifference. She had lost not only the habits of a woman, but even the good sense of an animal. She would eat to satiation, with her hands, and then let fall to the floor whatever was excess, to be trodden underfoot. She did not wash, nor care for herself in any way. Even most animals soil only one area of their dens, but as for Netta, she was like a mouse that lets her droppings fall everywhere, with no care for bedding.

“She was able to speak, in a sensible way, if she chose to or wanted some item badly enough. When she spoke by her own choice, it was usually to accuse me of stealing from her, or to utter threats against me if I did not immediately give her some item she had decided she wanted. Her habitual attitude toward me was suspicious and hateful. She ignored my attempts at normal conversation, but by withholding food from her, I was able to elicit answers in exchange for food. She had clear memory of her family, but had no interest in what had become of them. Rather she answered those questions as if answering questions about yesterday’s weather. Of her Forging time, she said only that they had been held in the belly of a ship, and that there had been little food and only enough water to go around. She had been fed nothing unusual that she recalled, nor had she been touched in any way that she remembered. Thus she could furnish to me no clue as to the mechanism of Forging itself. This was a great disappointment to me, for I had hoped that by learning how a thing was done, a man could discover how to undo it.

“I endeavored to bring human behavior back to her by reasoning with her, but to no avail. She appeared to understand my words, but would not act on them. Even when given two loaves of bread and warned that she must save one for the morrow or go hungry, she would let her second loaf fall to the floor, tread upon it, and on the morrow eat her own dropped leavings, careless of what dirt clung to them. She evinced no interest in her needlework or in any other pastime, not even the bright toys of a child. If not eating or sleeping, she was content merely to sit or lie, her mind as idle as her body. Offered sweets or pastries, she would indulge until she vomited, and then eat more.

“I treated her with sundry elixirs and herbal teas. I fasted her, I steamed her, I purged her body. Hot and cold dousings had no effect other than to make her angry. I caused her to sleep a full day and a night, to no change. I so charged her with elfbark that she could not sleep for two nights, but this only made her irritable. I spoiled her with kindnesses for a time, but as when I treated her with the harshest restrictions, it made no difference to her, or in how she regarded me. If hungry, she would make courtesies and smile pleasantly when commanded to, but as soon as food was furnished her, all further commands and requests were ignored.

“She was viciously jealous of territory and possessions. More than once she attempted to attack me, for no more reason than that I had ventured too close to food she was eating, and once because she suddenly decided she wished to have a ring I was wearing. She regularly killed the mice her untidiness attracted, snatching them up with amazing swiftness and dashing them against the wall. A cat that once ventured into her chambers met with a similar fate.

“She seemed to have little sense of the time that had passed since her Forging. She could give good account of her earlier life, if commanded when hungry, but of the days since her Forging, all was as one long ‘yesterday’ to her.

“From Netta, I could not learn if something had been added to her or taken away to Forge her. I did not know if it was a thing consumed or smelled or heard or seen. I did not know if it was even the work of a man’s hand and art, or the work of a sea demon such as some Farlanders claim to have power upon. From a long and weary experiment, I learned nothing.

“To Netta I gave a triple sleeping draft one evening with her water. I had her body bathed, her hair groomed, and sent her back to her village to be decently buried. At least one family could put finis to a tale of Forging. Most others must wonder, for months and years, what has become of the one they once held dear. Most are better off not knowing.” There were, at that time, over one thousand souls known to have been Forged.


Burrich had meant what he said. He had nothing more to do with me. I was no longer welcome down at the stables and kennels. Cob especially took savage pleasure in this. Although he was often gone with Regal, when he was about the stables he would often step to block my entry. “Allow me to bring you your horse, master,” he would say obsequiously. “The stablemaster prefers that grooms handle animals within the stables.” And so I must stand, like some incompetent lordling, while Sooty was saddled and brought for me. Cob himself mucked her stall and brought her feed and groomed her, and it ate at me like acid to see how quickly she welcomed him back. She was only a horse, I told myself, and not to be blamed. But it was one more abandonment.

I had too much time, suddenly. Mornings had always been spent working for Burrich. Now they were mine. Hod was busy training green men for defense. I was welcome to drill with them, but it was all lessons I had learned long ago. Fedwren was gone for the summer, as he was every summer. I could not think of a way to apologize to Patience, and I did not even think about Molly. Even my forays to the taverns in Buckkeep had become solitary ones. Kerry had apprenticed to a puppeteer, and Dirk gone for a sailor. I was idle and alone.

It was a summer of misery, and not just for me. While I was lonely and bitter and outgrowing all my clothes, while I snapped and snarled at any foolish enough to speak to me and drank myself insensible several times a week, I was still aware of how the Six Duchies were racked. The Red-Ship Raiders, bolder than ever before, harried our coastline. This summer, in addition to threats, they finally began to make demands. Grain, cattle, the right to take whatever they wished from our seaports, the right to beach their boats and live off our lands and people for the summer, their choice of our folk for slaves…each demand was more intolerable than the last, and the only thing more intolerable than the demands were the Forgings that followed each refusal by the King.

Common folk were abandoning the seaport and waterfront towns. One could not blame them, but it left our coastline even more vulnerable. More soldiers were hired, and more, and so the levies were raised to pay them, and folk grumbled under the burden of the taxes and their fear of the Red-Ship Raiders. Even stranger were the Outislanders who came to our shore in their family ships, their raiding vessels left behind, to beg asylum of our people, and to tell wild tales of chaos and tyranny in the Out Islands, where the Red-Ships now ruled completely. They were a mixed blessing, perhaps. They were cheaply hired as soldiers, though few really trusted them. But at least their tales of the Out Islands under Red-Ship domination were harrowing enough to keep anyone from thinking of giving in to the Raiders’ demands.

About a month after my return, Chade opened his door to me. I was sullen over his neglect of me and went more slowly up his stairs than ever I had before. But when I got there, he looked up from crushing seeds with a pestle with a face full of weariness. “I am glad to see you,” he said, with nothing of gladness in his voice.

“That’s why you were so swift to welcome me back,” I observed sourly.

He stopped his grinding. “I’m sorry. I thought perhaps you would need a time alone, to recover yourself.” He looked back to his seeds. “It has not been an easy winter and spring for me, either. Shall we try to put the time behind us, and go on?”

It was a gentle, reasonable suggestion. I knew it was wise.

“Have I any choice?” I asked sarcastically.

Chade finished grinding his seed. He scraped it into a finely woven sieve and put it over a cup to drip. “No,” he said at last, as if he had considered it well. “No, you don’t, and neither do I. In many things, we have no choice.” He looked at me, his eyes running up and down me, and then poked at his seed again. “You,” he said, “will stop drinking anything but water or tea for the rest of the summer. Your sweat stinks of wine. And for one so young, your muscles are lax. A winter of Galen’s meditations has done your body no good at all. See that you exercise it. Take it upon yourself, as of today, to climb to Verity’s tower four times a day. You will take him food, and the teas I will show you how to prepare. You will never show him a sullen face, but will always be cheerful and friendly. Perhaps a while of waiting on Verity will convince you that I have had reasons for my attention not being centered on you. That is what you will do each day you are at Buckkeep. There will be some days when you will be fulfilling other assignments for me.”

It had not taken many words from Chade to awaken shame in myself. My perception of my life crashed from high tragedy to juvenile self-pity in a matter of moments. “I have been idle,” I admitted.

“You have been stupid,” Chade agreed. “You had a month in which to take charge of your own life. You behaved like…a spoiled brat. I have no wonder that Burrich is disgusted with you.”

I had long ago stopped being surprised at what Chade knew. But this time I was sure he did not know the real reason, and I had no desire to share it with him.

“Have you discovered yet who tried to kill him?”

“I haven’t…tried, really.”

Now Chade looked disgusted, and then puzzled. “Boy, you are not yourself at all. Six months ago you would have torn the stables apart to know such a secret. Six months ago, given a month’s holiday, you would have filled each day. What troubles you?”

I looked down, feeling the truth of his words. I wanted to tell him everything that had befallen me; I wanted not to say a word of it to anyone. “I’ll tell you all I do know of the attack on Burrich.” And I did.

“And the one who saw all this,” he asked when I had finished. “Did he know the man who attacked Burrich?”

“He didn’t get a good look at him,” I hedged. Useless to tell Chade that I knew exactly how he smelled, but had only a vague visual image.

Chade was quiet for a moment. “Well, as much as you can, keep an ear to the earth. I should like to know who has grown so brave as to kill the King’s stablemaster in his own stable.”

“Then you do not think it was just some personal quarrel of Burrich’s?” I asked carefully.

“Perhaps it was. But we will not jump to conclusions. To me, it has the feel of a gambit. Someone is building to something, but has missed their first block. To our advantage, I hope.”

“Can you tell me why you think so?”

“I could, but I will not. I want to leave your mind free to find its own assumptions, independent of mine. Now come. I will show you the teas.”

I was more than a bit hurt that he asked me nothing about my time with Galen or my test. He seemed to accept my failure as a thing expected. But as he showed me the ingredients he had chosen for Verity’s teas, I was horrified by the strength of the stimulants he was using.

I had seen little of my Verity, though Regal had been only too much in evidence. He had spent the last month coming and going. He was always just returning, or just leaving, and each cavalcade seemed richer and more ornate than the one before. It seemed to me he was using the excuse of his brother’s courting to feather himself more brightly than any peacock. Common opinion was that he must go so, to impress those he negotiated with. For myself, I saw it as a waste of coin that could have gone to defenses. When Regal was gone, I felt relief, for his antagonism toward me had taken a recent bound, and he had found sundry small ways to express it.

The brief times when I had seen Verity or the King, they had both looked harassed and worn. But Verity especially had seemed almost stunned. Impassive and distracted, he had noticed me only once, and then smiled wearily and said I had grown. That had been the extent of our conversation. But I had noticed that he ate like an invalid, without appetite, eschewing meat and bread as if they were too great of an effort to chew and swallow and instead subsisting on porridges and soups.

“He is using the Skill too much. That much Shrewd has told me. But why it should drain him so, why it should burn the very flesh from his bones, he cannot explain to me. So I give him tonics and elixirs, and try to get him to rest. But he cannot. He dares not, he says. He tells me that only all his efforts are sufficient to delude the Red-Ship navigators, to send their ships onto the rocks, to discourage their captains. And so he rises from bed, and goes to his chair by a window, and there he sits, all the day.”

“And Galen’s coterie? Are they of no use to him?” I asked the question almost jealously, almost hoping to hear they were of no consequence.

Chade sighed. “I think he uses them as I would use carrier pigeons. He has sent them out to the towers, and he uses them to convey warnings to his soldiers, and to receive from them sightings of ships. But the task of defending the coast he trusts to no one else. Others, he tells me, would be too inexperienced; they might betray themselves to those they Skilled. I do not understand. But I know he cannot continue much longer. I pray for the end of summer, for winter storms to blow the Red-Ships home. Would there was someone to spell him at this work. I fear it will consume him.”

I took that as a rebuke for my failure and subsided into a sulky silence. I drifted around his chambers, finding them both familiar and strange after my months of absence. The apparatus for his herbal work was, as always, cluttered about. Slink was very much in evidence, with his smelly bits of bones in corners. As always, there was an assortment of tablets and scrolls by various chairs. This crop seemed to deal mostly with Elderlings. I wandered about, intrigued by the colored illustrations. One tablet, older and more elaborate than the rest, depicted an Elderling as a sort of gilded bird with a manlike head crowned with quillish hair. I began to piece out the words. It was in Piche, an ancient native tongue of Chalced, the southernmost Duchy. Many of the painted symbols had faded or flaked away from the old wood, and I had never been fluent in Piche. Chade came to stand at my elbow.

“You know,” he said gently, “it was not easy for me, but I kept my word. Galen demanded complete control of his students. He expressly stipulated that no one might contact you or interfere in any way with your discipline and instruction. And, as I told you, in the Queen’s Garden, I am blind and without influence.”

“I knew that,” I muttered.

“Yet I did not disagree with Burrich’s actions. Only my word to my king kept me from contacting you.” He paused cautiously. “It has been a difficult time, I know. I wish I could have helped you. And you should not feel too badly that you…”

“Failed.” I filled in the word while he searched for a gentler one. I sighed, and suddenly admitted my pain. “Let’s leave it, Chade. I can’t change it.”

“I know.” Then, even more carefully: “But perhaps we can use what you learned of the Skill. If you can help me understand it, perhaps I can devise better ways to spare Verity. For so many years the knowledge has been kept too secret…there is scarcely a mention of it in the old scrolls, save to say that such and such a battle was turned by the King’s Skill upon his soldiers, or such and such an enemy was confounded by the King’s Skill. Yet there is nothing of how it is done, or—”

Despair closed its grip on me again. “Leave it. It is not for bastards to know. I think I’ve proved that.”

A silence fell between us. At last Chade sighed heavily. “Well. That’s as may be. I’ve been looking into Forging as well, over these last few months. But all I’ve learned of it is what it is not, and what does not work to change it. The only cure I’ve found for it is the oldest one known to work on anything.”

I rolled and fastened the scroll I had been looking at, feeling I knew what was coming. I was not mistaken.

“The King has charged me with an assignment for you.”

That summer, over three months, I killed seventeen times for the King. Had I not already killed, out of my own volition and defense, it might have been harder.

The assignments might have seemed simple. Me, a horse, and panniers of poisoned bread. I rode roads where travelers had reported being attacked, and when the Forged ones attacked me, I fled, leaving a trail of spilled loaves. Perhaps if I had been an ordinary man-at-arms, I would have been less frightened. But all my life I had been accustomed to relying on my Wit to let me know when others were about. To me, it was tantamount to having to work without using my eyes. And I swiftly found out that not all Forged ones had been cobblers and weavers. The second little clan of them that I poisoned had several soldiers among them. I was fortunate that most of them were squabbling over loaves when I was dragged from my horse. I took a deep cut from a knife, and to this day I bear the scar on my left shoulder. They were strong and competent, and seemed to fight as a unit, perhaps because that was how they had been drilled, back when they were fully human. I would have died, except that I cried out to them that it was foolish to struggle with me while the others were eating all the bread. They dropped me, I struggled to my horse, and escaped.

The poisons were no crueler than they had to be, but to be effective even in the smallest dosage, we had to use harsh ones. The Forged ones did not die gently, but it was as swift a death as Chade could concoct. They snatched their deaths from me eagerly, and I did not have to witness their frothing convulsions, or even see their bodies by the road. When news of the fallen Forged ones reached Buckkeep, Chade’s tale that they had probably died from eating spoiled fish from spawning streams had already spread as a ubiquitous rumor. Relatives collected the bodies and gave them proper burial. I told myself they were probably relieved, and that the Forged ones had met a quicker end than if they had starved to death over winter. And so I became accustomed to killing, and had nearly a score of deaths to my credit before I had to meet the eyes of a man, and then kill him.

That one, too, was not so difficult as it might have been. He was a minor lordling, holding lands outside of Turlake. A story reached Buckkeep that he had, in a temper, struck the child of a servant, and left the girl a witling. That was sufficient to raise King Shrewd’s lip. The lordling had paid the full blood debt, and by accepting it, the servant had given up any form of the King’s justice. But some months later there came to court a cousin of the girl’s, and she petitioned for private audience with Shrewd.

I was sent to confirm her tale and saw how the girl was kept like a dog at the foot of the lordling’s chair, and more, how her belly had begun to swell with child. And so it was not too difficult, as he offered me wine in fine crystal and begged the latest news of the King’s court at Buckkeep, for me to find a time to lift his glass to the light and praise the quality of both vessel and wine. I left some days later, my errand completed, with the samples of paper I had promised Fedwren, and the conveyed wishes of the lordling for a good trip home. The lordling was indisposed that day. He died, in blood and madness and froth, a month or so later. The cousin took in both girl and child. To this day, I have no regrets, for the deed or for the choice of slow death for him.

And when I was not dealing death to Forged ones, I waited on my lord Prince Verity. I remember the first time I climbed all those stairs to his tower, balancing a tray as I went. I had expected a guard or sentry at the top. There was none. I tapped at the door, and receiving no answer, entered quietly. Verity was sitting in a chair by a window. A summer wind off the ocean blew into the room. It could have been a pleasant chamber, full of light and air on a stuffy summer day. Instead it seemed to me a cell. There was the chair by the window, and a small table next to it. In the corners and around the edges of the room the floor was dusty and littered with bits of old strewing reeds. And Verity, chin slumped to his chest as if dozing, except that to my senses the room thrummed with his effort. His hair was unkempt, his chin bewhiskered with a day’s growth. His clothing hung on him.

I pushed the door shut with my foot and took the tray to the table. I set it down and stood beside it, quietly waiting. And in a few minutes he came back from wherever he had been. He looked up at me with a ghost of his old smile, and then down at his tray. “What’s this?”

“Breakfast, sir. Everyone else ate hours ago, save yourself.”

“I ate, boy. Early this morning. Some awful fish soup. The cooks should be hanged for that. No one should face fish first thing in the morning.” He seemed uncertain, like some doddering gaffer trying to recall the days of his youth.

“That was yesterday, sir.” I uncovered the plates. Warm bread swirled with honey and raisins, cold meats, a dish of strawberries, and a small pot of cream for them. All were small portions, almost a child’s serving. I poured the steaming tea into a waiting mug. It was flavored heavily with ginger and peppermint, to cover the ground elfbark’s tang.

Verity glanced at it and then up to me. “Chade never relents, does he?” Spoken so casually, as if Chade’s name were mentioned every day about the keep.

“You need to eat, if you are to continue,” I said neutrally.

“I suppose,” he said wearily, and turned to the tray as if the artfully arranged food were yet another duty to attend. He ate with no relish for the food, and drank the tea in a manful draft, as a medicine, undeceived by ginger or mint. Halfway through the meal he paused with a sigh and gazed out the window for a bit. Then, seeming to come back again, he forced himself to consume each item completely. He pushed the tray aside and leaned back in the chair as if exhausted. I stared. I had prepared the tea myself. That much elfbark would have had Sooty leaping over the stall walls.

“My prince?” I said, and when he did not stir, I touched his shoulder lightly. “Verity? Are you all right?”

“Verity,” he repeated as in a daze. “Yes. And I prefer that to ‘sir’ or ‘my prince’ or ‘my lord.’ This is my father’s gambit, to send you. Well. I may surprise him yet. But, yes, call me Verity. And tell them I ate. Obedient as ever, I ate. Go on, now, boy. I have work to do.”

He seemed to roust himself with an effort, and once more his gaze went afar. I stacked the dishes as quietly as I could atop the tray and headed toward the door. But as I lifted the latch, he spoke again.

“Boy?”

“Sir?”

“Ah-ah!” he warned me.

“Verity?”

“Leon is in my rooms, boy. Take him out for me, will you? He pines. There is no sense in the both of us shriveling like this.”

“Yes, sir. Verity.”

And so the old hound, past his prime now, came to be in my care. Each day I took him from Verity’s room, and we hunted the back hills and cliffs and the beaches for wolves that had not run there in a score of years. As Chade had suspected, I was badly out of condition, and at first it was all I could do to keep up even with the old hound. But as the days went by we regained our tone, and Leon even caught a rabbit or two for me. Now that I was exiled from Burrich’s domain, I did not scruple to use the Wit whenever I wished. But as I had discovered long ago, I could communicate with Leon, but there was no bond. He did not always heed me, nor even believe me all the time. Had he been but a pup, I am sure we could have bonded to one another. But he was old, and his heart given forever to Verity. The Wit was not dominion over beasts, but only a glimpse into their lives.

And thrice a day I climbed the steeply winding steps, to coax Verity to eat, and to a few words of conversation. Some days it was like speaking to a child or a doddering oldster. On others, he asked after Leon and quizzed me about matters down in Buckkeep Town. Sometimes I was absent for days on my other assignments. Usually, he seemed not to have noticed, but once, after the foray in which I took my knife wound, he watched me awkwardly load his empty dishes onto the tray. “How they must laugh in their beards, if they knew we slay our own.”

I froze, wondering what answer to make to that, for as far as I knew, my tasks were known only to Shrewd and Chade. But Verity’s eyes had gone afar again, and I left silently.

Without intending to, I began to make changes around him. One day, while he was eating, I swept the room, and later that evening, brought up in a separate trip a sackful of strewing reeds and herbs. I had worried that I might be a distraction to him, but Chade had taught me to move quietly. I worked without speaking to him, and as for Verity, he acknowledged neither my coming nor going. But the room was freshened, and the ververia blossoms mixed in with the strewing herbs were an enlivening scent. Coming in once, I discovered him dozing in his hard-backed chair. I brought up cushions, which he ignored for several days, and then one day had arranged to his liking. The room remained bare, but I sensed he needed it so, to preserve his single-mindedness. So what I brought him were the barest items of comfort, no tapestries or wall hangings, no vases of flowers or tinkling wind chimes, but flowering thymes in pots to ease the headaches that plagued him, and on one stormy day, a blanket against the rain and chill from the open window.

On that day I found him sleeping in his chair, limp as a dead thing. I tucked the blanket around him as if he were an invalid, and set the tray before him, but left it covered, to keep the good heat in the food. I sat down on the floor next to his chair, propped against one of his discarded cushions, and listened to the silence of the room. It seemed almost peaceful today, despite the driving summer rain outside the open window, and the gale wind that gusted in from time to time. I must have dozed, for I woke to his hand on my hair.

“Do they tell you to watch over me so, boy, even when I sleep? What do they fear, then?”

“Naught that I know, Verity. They tell me only to bring you food, and see as best I can that you eat it. No more than that.”

“And blankets and cushions, and pots of sweet flowers?”

“My own doing, my prince. No man should live in such a desert as this.” And in that moment I realized we were not speaking aloud, and sat bolt upright and looked at him.

Verity, too, seemed to come to himself. He shifted in his comfortless chair. “I bless this storm, that lets me rest. I hid it from three of their ships, persuading those who looked to the sky that it was no more than a summer squall. Now they ply their oars and peer through the rain, trying to keep their courses. And I can snatch a few moments of honest sleep.” He paused. “I ask your pardon, boy. Sometimes, now, the Skilling seems more natural than speaking. I did not mean to intrude on you.”

“No matter, my prince. I was but startled. I cannot Skill myself, except weakly and erratically. I do not know how I opened to you.”

“Verity, boy, not your prince. No one’s prince sits still in a sweaty shirt, with two days of beard. But what is this nonsense? Surely it was arranged for you to learn the Skill? I remember well how Patience’s tongue battered away my father’s resolve.” He permitted himself a weary smile.

“Galen tried to teach me, but I had not the aptitude. With bastards, I am told it is often—”

“Wait,” he growled, and in an instant was within my mind. “This is faster,” he offered, by way of apology, and then, muttering to himself, “What is this that clouds you so? Ah!” and was gone again from my mind, and all as deft and easy as Burrich taking a tick off a hound’s ear. He sat long, quiet, and so did I, wondering.

“I am strong in it, as was your father. Galen is not.”

“Then how did he become Skillmaster?” I asked quietly. I wondered if Verity was saying this only to somehow make me feel my failure less.

Verity paused as if skirting a delicate subject. “Galen was Queen Desire’s…pet. A favorite. The Queen emphatically suggested Galen as apprentice to Solicity. Often I think our old Skillmaster was desperate when she took him as apprentice. Solicity knew she was dying, you see. I believe she acted in haste, and toward the end, regretted her decision. And I do not think he had half the training he should have had before becoming ‘master.’ But there he is; he is what we have.”

Verity cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. “I will speak as plainly as I can, boy, for I see that you know how to hold your tongue when it is wise. Galen was given that place as a plum, not because he merited it. I do not think he has ever fully grasped what it means to be the Skillmaster. Oh, he knows the position carries power, and he has not scrupled to wield it. But Solicity was more than someone who swaggered about secure in a high position. Solicity was adviser to Bounty, and a link between the King and all who Skilled for him. She made it her business to seek out and teach as many as manifested real talent and the judgment to use it well. This coterie is the first group Galen has trained since Chivalry and I were boys. And I do not find them well taught. No, they are trained, as monkeys and parrots are taught to mimic men, with no understanding of what they do. But they are what I have.” Verity looked out the window and spoke softly. “Galen has no finesse. He is as coarse as his mother was, and just as presumptuous.” Verity paused suddenly, and his cheeks flushed as if he had said something ill considered. He resumed more quietly. “The Skill is like language, boy. I need not shout at you to let you know what I want. I can ask politely, or hint, or let you know my wish with a nod and a smile. I can Skill a man, and leave him thinking it was all his own idea to please me. But all that eludes Galen, both in the use of the Skill and the teaching of it. He uses force to batter his way in. Privation and pain are one way to lower a man’s defenses; it is the only way Galen believes in. But Solicity used guile. She would have me watch a kite, or a bit of dust floating in a sunbeam, focusing on it as if there were nothing else in the world. And suddenly there she would be, inside my mind with me, smiling and praising me. She taught me that being open was simply not being closed. And going into another’s mind is mostly done by being willing to go outside of your own. Do you see, boy?”

“Somewhat,” I hedged.

“Somewhat.” He sighed. “I could teach you to Skill, had I but the time. I do not. But tell me this—were your lessons going well, before he tested you?”

“No. I never had any aptitude…wait! That’s not true! What am I saying, what have I been thinking?” Though I was sitting, I swayed suddenly, my head bounding off the arm of Verity’s chair. He reached out a hand and steadied me.

“I was too swift, I suppose. Steady now, boy. Someone had misted you. Befuddled you, much as I do Red-Ship navigators and steersmen. Convince them they’ve taken a sighting already and their course is true when really they are steering into a cross current. Convince them they’ve passed a point they haven’t sighted yet. Someone convinced you that you could not Skill.”

“Galen.” I spoke with certainty. I almost knew the moment. He had slammed into me that afternoon, and from that time nothing had been the same. I had been living in a fog, all those months….

“Probably. Though if you Skilled into him at all, I’m sure you’ve seen what Chivalry did to him. He hated your father with a passion, prior to Chiv turning him into a lapdog. We felt badly about it. We’d have undone it, if we could have figured out how to do it, and escape Solicity’s detection. But Chiv was strong with the Skill, and we were all but boys then, and Chiv was angry when he did it. Over something Galen had done to me, ironically. Even when Chivalry was not angry, being Skilled by him was like being trampled by a horse. Or ducked in a fast-flowing river, more like. He’d get in a hurry, and barge into you and dump his information and flee.” He paused again and reached to uncover a dish of soup on his tray. “I guess I’ve always assumed you knew all this. Though I’m damned if there’s any way you could have. Who would have told you?”

I seized on one piece of information. “You could teach me to Skill?”

“If I had time. A great deal of time. You’re a lot like Chiv and I were, when we learned. Erratic. Strong, but with no idea how to bring that strength to bear. And Galen has…well, scarred you, I suppose. You’ve walls I can’t begin to penetrate, and I am strong. You’d have to learn to drop them. That’s a hard thing. But I could teach you, yes. If you and I had a year, and nothing else to do.” He pushed the soup aside. “But we don’t.”

My hopes crashed again. This second wave of disappointment engulfed me, grinding me against stones of frustration. My memories all reordered themselves, and in a surge of anger, I knew all that had been done to me. Were it not for Smithy, I’d have dashed my life out at the base of the tower that night. Galen had tried to kill me, just as surely as if he’d had a knife. No one would even have known of how he’d beaten me, save his loyal coterie. And while he’d failed at that, he had taken from me the chance to learn Skilling. He’d crippled me, and I would…I leaped to my feet, furious.

“Whoa. Be slow and careful. You have a grievance, but we cannot have discord within the keep itself right now. Carry it with you until you can settle it quietly, for the King’s sake.” I bowed my head to the wisdom of his counsel. He lifted the cover from a small roast fowl, dropped it again. “Why would you want to learn this Skill anyway? It’s a miserable thing. No fit occupation for a man.”

“To help you,” I said without thinking, and then found it true. Once it would have been to prove myself a true and fit son to Chivalry, to impress Burrich or Chade, to increase my standing in the keep. Now, after watching what Verity did, day after day, with no praise or acknowledgment from his subjects, I found I only wanted to help him.

“To help me,” he repeated. The storm winds were slackening. With exhausted resignation, he lifted his eyes to the window. “Take the food away, boy. I’ve no time for it now.”

“But you need strength,” I protested. Guiltily, I knew he had taken time with me that he should have taken for food and sleep.

“I know. But I have no time. Eating takes energy. Odd to realize that. I have none extra to give to that just now.” His eyes were questing afar now, staring through the sheeting rain that was just beginning to slacken.

“I’d give you my strength, Verity. If I could.”

He looked at me oddly. “Are you sure? Very sure?”

I could not understand the intensity of his question, but I knew the answer. “Of course I would.” And more quietly: “I am a king’s man.”

“And of my own blood,” he affirmed. He sighed. For a moment he looked sickened. He looked again at the food, and again out the window. “There is just time,” he whispered. “And it might be enough. Damnation to you, Father. Must you always win? Come here, then, boy.”

There was an intensity to his words that frightened me, but I obeyed. When I stood by his chair, he reached out a hand. He placed it on my shoulder, as if he needed assistance to rise.

I looked up at him from the floor. There was a pillow under my head, and the blanket I had brought up earlier had been tossed over me. Verity stood, leaning out the window. He was shaking with effort, and the Skill he exerted was like battering waves I could almost feel. “Onto the rocks,” he said with deep satisfaction, and whirled from the window. He grinned at me, an old fierce grin, that faded slowly as he looked down on me.

“Like a calf to the slaughter,” he said ruefully. “I should have known that you didn’t know what you were talking about.”

“What happened to me?” I managed to ask. My teeth chattered against each other, and my whole body shook as with a chill. I felt I would rattle my bones out of their joints.

“You offered me your strength. I took it.” He poured a cup of the tea, then knelt to hold it to my mouth. “Go slowly. I was in a hurry. Did I say earlier that Chivalry was a bull with his Skill? What must I say about myself then?”

He had his old bluff heartiness and good nature back. This was a Verity I had not seen for months. I managed a mouthful of the tea and felt the elfbark sting my mouth and throat. My shivering eased. Verity took a casual gulp from the mug.

“In the old days,” he said conversationally, “a king would draw on his coterie. Half a dozen men or more, and all in tune with one another, able to pool strength and offer it as needed. That was their true purpose. To provide strength to their king, or to their own key man. I don’t think Galen quite grasps that. His coterie is a thing he has fashioned. They are like horses and bullocks and donkeys, all harnessed together. Not a true coterie at all. They lack the singleness of mind.”

“You drew strength from me?”

“Yes. Believe me, boy, I would not have, except that I had a sudden need, and I thought you knew what you offered. You yourself named yourself as a king’s man, the old term. And as close as we are in blood, I knew I could tap you.” He set the mug down on the tray with a thump. Disgust deepened his voice. “Shrewd. He sets things in motion, wheels turning, pendulums swaying. It is no accident you are the one to bring me my meals, boy. He was making you available to me.” He took a swift turn about the room, then stopped, standing over me. “It will not happen again.”

“It was not so bad,” I said faintly.

“No? Why don’t you try to stand, then? Or even sit up? You’re just one boy, alone, not a coterie. Had I not realized your ignorance and drawn back, I could have killed you. Your heart and breath would just have stopped. I’ll not drain you like this, not for anyone. Here.” He stooped, and without effort, lifted me and placed me in his chair. “Sit here a bit. And eat. I don’t need it now. And when you are better, go to Shrewd for me. Say that I say you are a distraction. I wish a kitchen boy to bring my meals, from now on.”

“Verity,” I began.

“No,” he corrected me. “Say ‘my prince.’ For in this, I am your prince, and I will not be questioned on it. Now eat.”

I bowed my head, miserable, but I did eat, and the elfbark in the tea worked to revive me faster than I had expected. Soon I could stand, to stack the dishes on the tray and then to carry them to the door. I felt defeated. I lifted the latch.

“FitzChivalry Farseer.”

I halted, frozen by the words. I turned slowly.

“It’s your name, boy. I wrote it myself, in the military log, on the day you were brought to me. Another thing I had thought you knew. Stop thinking of yourself as the bastard, FitzChivalry Farseer. And be sure that you see Shrewd today.”

“Good-bye,” I said quietly, but he was already staring out the window again.

And so high summer found us all. Chade at his tablets, Verity at his window, Regal courting a princess for his brother, and I, quietly killing for my king. The Inland and Coastal Dukes took sides at the council tables, hissing and spitting at one another like cats over fish. And atop it all was Shrewd, keeping each piece of web as taut as any spider, and alert to the least thrumming of a line. The Red-Ships struck at us, like ratfish on beefbait, tearing away bits of our folk and Forging them. And the Forged folk became a torment to the land, beggars or predators or burden to their families. Folk feared to fish, to trade, or to farm the river-mouth plains by the sea. And yet the taxes must be raised, to feed the soldiers and the watchers who seemed unable to defend the land despite their growing numbers. Shrewd had grudgingly released me from my service to Verity. My king had not called for me in over a month when one morning I was abruptly summoned to breakfast.

“It’s a poor time to wed,” Verity objected. I looked at the sallow, fleshless man who shared the King’s breakfast table and wondered if this was the bluff, hearty prince from my childhood. He had worsened so much in just a month. He toyed with a bit of bread, set it down again. The outdoors had gone from his cheeks and eyes; his hair was dull, his musculature slack. The whites of his eyes were yellowed. Burrich would have wormed him if he’d been a hound.

Unasked, I said, “I hunted with Leon two days ago. He took a rabbit for me.”

Verity turned to me, a ghost of his old smile playing on his face. “You took my wolfhound for rabbits?”

“He enjoyed it. He misses you, though. He brought me the rabbit, and I praised him, but it didn’t seem to satisfy him.” I couldn’t tell him how the hound had looked at me, not for you as plain in his eyes as in his bearing.

Verity picked up his glass. His hand quivered ever so slightly. “I am glad he gets out with you, boy. It’s better than—”

“The wedding,” Shrewd cut in, “will hearten the people. I am getting old, Verity, and the times are troubled. The people see no end to their troubles, and I do not dare promise them solutions we do not have. The Outislanders are right, Verity. We are not the warriors who once settled here. We have become a settled people. And a settled people can be threatened in ways that nomads and rovers have no care for. And we can be destroyed in those same ways. When settled people look for security, they look for continuity.”

Here I looked up sharply. Those were Chade’s words, I’d bet my blood on it. Did that mean that this wedding was something Chade was helping to engineer? My interest became keener, and I wondered again why I had been summoned to this breakfast.

“It’s a matter of reassuring our folk, Verity. You have not Regal’s charm, nor the bearing that let Chivalry convince anyone that he could take care of any matter. This is not to slight you; you have as much talent for the Skill as I have ever seen in our line, and in many eras your soldierly skills in tactics would have been more important than Chivalry’s diplomacy.”

This sounded suspiciously like a rehearsed speech to me. I watched Shrewd pause. He put cheese and preserves on some bread and bit into it thoughtfully. Verity sat silent, watching his father. He seemed both attentive and bemused. Like a man trying desperately to stay awake and be alert when all he can think of is putting his head down and closing his eyes; well, Verity certainly looked at least that tired. My brief experiences of the Skill and the split concentration it demanded to resist its enticements, while bending it to one’s will, made me marvel at Verity’s ability to wield it every day.

Shrewd glanced from Verity to me and back to his son’s face. “Putting it simply, you need to marry. More, you need to beget a child. It would put heart into the people. They would say, ‘Well, it cannot be as bad as all that, if our prince does not fear to marry and have a child. Surely he would not be doing that if the whole kingdom were on the verge of crumbling.’ ”

“But you and I would still know better, wouldn’t we, Father?” There was a hint of rust in Verity’s voice, and a bitterness I had never heard there before.

“Verity—” Shrewd began, but his son cut in.

“My king,” he said formally. “You and I do know that we are on the brink of disaster. And now, right now, there can be no slackening of our vigilance. I have no time for courting and wooing, and even less time for the more subtle negotiations of finding a royal bride. While the weather is fine, the Red-Ships will raid. And when it turns poor, and the tempests blow their ships back to their own ports, then we must turn our minds and our energies to fortifying our coastlines and training crews to manage raiding ships of our own. That is what I want to discuss with you. Let us build our own fleet, not fat merchant ships to waddle about tempting raiders, but sleek warships, such as we once had and our oldest shipwrights still know how to make. And let us take this battle to the Outislanders—yes, even through the storms of winter. We used to have such sailors and warriors among us. If we begin to build and train now, by next spring we could at least hold them away from our coast, and possibly by winter we could—”

“It will take money. And money does not flow fastest from terrified men. To raise the funds we need, we need to have our merchants confident enough to continue trading, we have to have farmers unafraid to pasture their flocks on the coast meadows and hills. It all comes back, Verity, to your taking a wife.”

Verity, so animated when speaking of warships, leaned back in his chair. He seemed to sag in on himself, as if some piece of structure inside him had given way. I almost expected to see him collapse. “As you will, my king,” he said, but as he spoke he shook his head, denying the affirmation of his own words. “I will do as you see wise. Such is the duty of a prince to his king and to his kingdom. But as a man, Father, it is a bitter and empty thing, this taking of a woman selected by my younger brother. I will wager that having looked on Regal first, when she stands beside me, she will not see me as any great prize.” Verity looked down at his hands, at the battle and work scars that now showed plainly against their paleness. I heard his name in his words when he said softly, “Always I have been your second son. Behind Chivalry, with his beauty, strength, and wisdom. And now behind Regal, with his cleverness and charm and airs. I know you think he would be a better King to follow after you than I. I do not always disagree with you. I was born second, and raised to be second. I had always believed my place would be behind the throne, not upon it. And when I thought that Chivalry would follow you to that high seat, I did not mind it. He gave me great worth, my brother did. His confidence in me was like an honor; it made me a part of all he accomplished. To be the right hand of such a king were better than to be King of many a lesser land. I believed in him as he believed in me. But he is gone. And I tell you nothing surprising when I say to you that there is no such bond between Regal and me. Perhaps there are too many years; perhaps Chivalry and I were so close we left no room for a third. But I do not think he sought for a woman that can love me. Or one that—”

“He chose you a queen!” Shrewd interrupted harshly. I knew then that this was not the first time this had been argued and sensed that Shrewd was most annoyed that I had been privy to these words. “Regal chose a woman, not for you, or himself, or any such silliness. He chose a woman to be Queen of this country, of these Six Duchies. A woman who can bring to us the wealth and the men and the trade agreements that we need now, if we are to survive these Red-Ships. Soft hands and a sweet scent will not build your warships, Verity. You must set aside this jealousy of your brother; you cannot fend off the enemy if you do not have confidence in those who stand behind you.”

“Exactly,” Verity said quietly. He pushed his chair back.

“Where do you go?” Shrewd demanded irritably.

“To my duties,” Verity said shortly. “Where else have I to go?”

For a moment even Shrewd looked taken aback. “But you’ve scarcely eaten….” He faltered.

“The Skill kills all other appetites. You know that.”

“Yes.” Shrewd paused. “And I know, too, as you do, that when this happens, a man is close to the edge. The appetite for the Skill is one that devours a man, not one that nourishes him.”

They both seemed to have forgotten entirely about me. I made myself small and unobtrusive, nibbling on my biscuit as if I were a mouse in a corner.

“But what does the devouring of one man matter, if it saves a kingdom.” Verity did not bother to disguise the bitterness in his voice, and to me it was plain that it was not the Skill alone that he spoke of. He pushed his plate away. “After all,” he added with ponderous sarcasm, “it is not as if you do not have yet another son to step in and wear your crown. One unscarred by what the Skill does to men. One free to wed where he will, or will not.”

“It is not Regal’s fault that he is unSkilled. He was a sickly child, too sickly for Galen to train. And who could have foreseen that two Skilled Princes would not be enough,” Shrewd protested. He rose abruptly and paced the length of the chamber. He stood, leaning on the windowsill and peering out over the sea below. “I do what I can, son,” he added in a lower voice. “Do you think I do not care, that I do not see how you are being consumed?”

Verity sighed heavily. “No. I know. It is the weariness of the Skill that speaks so, not I. One of us, at least, must keep a clear head and try to grasp the whole of what is happening. For me, there is nothing but the sensing out, and then the sorting, the trying to fix navigator out from oarsman, to scent out the secret fears that the Skill can magnify, to find the faint hearts in the crew and prey upon those first. When I sleep, I dream them, and when I try to eat, they are what sticks in my throat. You know I have never relished this, Father. It never seemed to me worthy of a warrior, to skulk and spy about in men’s minds. Give me a sword and I’ll willingly explore their guts. I’d rather unman a man with a blade than turn the hounds of his own mind to nipping at his heels.”

“I know, I know,” Shrewd said gently, but I did not think he really did. I, at least, did understand Verity’s distaste for his task. I had to admit I shared it, and felt him somehow dirtied by it. But when he glanced at me, my face and eyes were empty of any judgment. Deeper within me was the sneaking guilt that I had failed to learn the Skill, and was no use to my uncle at this time. I wondered if he looked at me, and thought of drawing on my strength again. It was a frightening thought, but I steeled myself to the request. But he only smiled at me kindly, if absently, as if no such thought had ever crossed his mind. And as he rose and walked past my chair, he tousled my hair as if I were Leon.

“Take my dog out for me, even if it is only for rabbits. I hate to leave him in my rooms each day, but his poor dumb pleading was a distraction from what I must do.”

I nodded, surprised at what I felt emanating from him. A shadow of the same pain I had felt at being separated from my own dogs.

“Verity.”

He turned at Shrewd’s call.

“Almost I forgot to tell you why I had called you here. It is, of course, the mountain princess. Ketkin, I think her name was….”

“Kettricken. I at least remember that much. A skinny little child, the last time I saw her. So, she is the one you have selected?”

“Yes. For all the reasons we have already discussed. And a day has been set. Ten days before our Harvest Feast. You will have to leave here during the first part of Reaptime in order to reach there in time. There will be a ceremony there, before her own people, binding the two of you and sealing all the agreements, and a formal wedding later, when you arrive back here with her. Regal sends word that you must—”

Verity had halted, and his face darkened with frustration. “I cannot. You know I cannot. If I leave off my work here while it is still Reaptime, there will be nothing to bring a bride back to. Always, the Outislanders have been greediest and most reckless in the final month before the winter storms drive them back to their own wretched shore. Do you think it will be any different this year? Like as not I would bring Kettricken back here to find them feasting in our own Buckkeep, with your head on a pike to greet me!”

King Shrewd looked angered, but kept his temper as he asked, “Do you really think they could press us that greatly if you gave off your efforts for twenty days or so?”

“I know it,” Verity said wearily. “I know it as surely as I know that I should be at my post right now, not arguing here with you. Father, tell them it must be put off. I’ll go for her as soon as we’ve a good coat of snow on the ground, and a blessed gale lashing all ships into their ports.”

“It cannot be,” Shrewd said regretfully. “They have beliefs of their own, up in the mountains. A wedding made in winter yields a barren harvest. You must take her in the fall, when the lands are yielding, or in late spring, when they till their little mountain fields.”

“I cannot. By the time spring comes to their mountains, it is fair weather here, with Raiders on our doorsills. Surely they must understand that!” Verity moved his head about, like a restless horse on a short lead. He did not want to be here. Distasteful as he found his Skill work, it called to him. He wanted to go to it, wanted it in a way that had nothing to do with protecting his kingdom. I wondered if Shrewd knew that. I wondered if Verity did.

“To understand something is one thing,” the King expounded. “To insist they flaunt their traditions is another. Verity, this must be so, done now.” Shrewd rubbed his head as if it pained him. “We need this joining. We need her soldiers, we need her marriage gifts, we need her father at our back. It cannot wait. Could not you perhaps go in a closed litter, unhampered by managing a horse, and continue your Skill work as you travel? It might even do you good to get out and about a bit, to have a little fresh air and—”

“NO!” Verity bellowed the word, and Shrewd turned where he stood, almost as if he were at bay against the windowsill. Verity advanced to the table and pounded upon it, showing a temper I had never suspected in him. “No and no and no! I cannot do the work I must do to keep the Raiders from our coast while being rocked and jolted in a horse litter. And no, I will not go to this bride you have chosen for me, to this woman I scarce recall, in a litter like an invalid or a witling. I will not have her see me so, nor would I have my men sniggering behind me, saying, ‘Oh, this is what brave Verity has come to, riding like a palsied old man, pandered off to some woman as if he were an Outislander whore.’ Where are your wits that you can think such stupid plans? You’ve been among the mountain folk, you know their ways. Think you a woman of theirs would accept a man who came to her in such a sickly way? Even their royals expose a child if it is born less than whole. You’d spoil your own plan, and leave the Six Duchies to the Raiders while you did it.”

“Then perhaps—”

“Then perhaps there is a Red-Ship right now, not so far that they cannot see Egg Island, and already the captain of it is discounting the dream of ill omen he had last night, and the navigator is correcting his course, wondering how he could have so mistaken the landmarks of our coastline. Already all the work I did last night while you slept and Regal danced and drank with his courtiers is coming undone, while we stand here and yatter at one another. Father, arrange it. Arrange it any way you wish and can, so long as it does not involve me doing anything save the Skill while fair weather plagues our coast.” Verity had been moving as he spoke, and the slamming of the King’s chamber door almost drowned out his final words.

Shrewd stood and stared at the door for some moments. Then he passed his hand across his eyes, rubbing them, but for weariness or tears or just a bit of dust, I could not tell. He looked about the room, frowning when his eyes encountered me, as if I were a thing puzzlingly out of place. Then, as if recalling why I were there, he observed dryly, “Well, that went well, didn’t it? Still and all, a way must be found. And when Verity rides to claim his bride, you will go with him.”

“If you wish, my king,” I said quietly.

“I do.” He cleared his throat, then turned to look out his window again. “The Princess has a single sibling, an older brother. He is not a healthy man. Oh, he was well and strong once, but on the Ice Fields he took an arrow through his chest. Passed clean through him, so Regal was told. And the wounds on his chest and back healed. But in winters, he coughs blood, and in summer he cannot sit a horse nor drill his men for more than half the morning. Knowing the mountain folk, it is full surprising that he is their King-in-Waiting.”

I thought quietly for a moment. “Among the mountain folk the custom is the same as ours. Male or female, the offspring inherit, by the order of their birth.”

“Yes. That is so,” Shrewd said quietly, and I knew that already he was thinking that Seven Duchies might be stronger than Six.

“And Princess Kettricken’s father,” I asked, “how is his health?”

“As hale and hearty as one could wish, for a man of his years. I am sure he will reign long and well, for at least another decade, keeping his kingdom whole and safe for his heir.”

“Probably by then our troubles with the Red-Ships will long be over. Verity will be free to turn his mind to other things.”

“Probably,” King Shrewd agreed quietly. His eyes finally met mine. “When Verity goes to claim his bride, you will go with him,” he said again. “You understand what your duties will be? I trust to your discretion.”

I inclined my head to him. “As you wish, my king.”

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

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