Assassins Apprentice: The Illustrated Edition | Chapter 42 of 53

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Chapter

21

Princes

Of the Chyurdan herb carryme, their saying is, “A leaf to sleep, two to dull pain, three for a merciful grave.”


Toward dawn, I finally dozed, only to be awakened by Prince Rurisk flinging aside the screen that served as door to my chamber. He burst into the room, flourishing a sloshing decanter. The looseness of the garment that fluttered about him declared it a night robe. I rolled quickly from the bed and managed to stand, with the bedstead between us. I was cornered, sick and weaponless, save for my belt knife.

“You live still!” he exclaimed in amazement, then advanced on me with his flask. “Quick, drink this.”

“I would sooner not,” I told him, retreating as he advanced.

Seeing my wariness, he paused. “You have taken poison,” he told me carefully. “It is fully a miracle of Chranzuli that you still live. This is a purge that will flush it from your body. Take it, and you may still live.”

“There is nothing left in my body to purge,” I told him bluntly, and then caught at a table as I began to shake. “I knew I had been poisoned when I left you last night.”

“And you said nothing to me?” He was incredulous. He turned back to the door, where Kettricken now peeked in timidly. Her hair was in tousled braids, and her eyes red with weeping. “It is averted, small thanks to you,” her brother told her severely. “Go and make him a salty broth from some of last night’s meat. And bring a sweet pastry as well. Enough for both of us. And tea. Go on now, you foolish girl!”

Kettricken scampered off like a child. Rurisk gestured at the bed. “Come. Trust me enough to sit down. Before you upset the table with your shaking. I am speaking plainly to you. You and I, FitzChivalry, we have no time for this distrust. There is much we must speak of, you and I.”

I sat down, not out of trust so much as for fear I would otherwise collapse. Without formality, Rurisk sat down on the end of the bed. “My sister,” he said gravely, “is impetuous. Poor Verity will find her more child than woman, I fear, and much of that is my fault, I have spoiled her so. But although that explains her fondness for me, it does not excuse her poisoning of a guest. Especially not on the eve of her wedding to his uncle.”

“I think I would have felt much the same about it at any time,” I said, and Rurisk threw back his head and laughed.

“There is much of your father in you. So would he have said, I am sure. But I must explain. She came to me days ago, to tell me that you were coming to make an end of me. I told her then that it was not her concern, and I would take care of it. But, as I have said, she is impulsive. Yesterday she saw an opportunity and took it. With no regard as to how the death of a guest might affect a carefully negotiated wedding. She thought only to do away with you before vows bound her to the Six Duchies and made such an act unthinkable. I should have suspected it when she took you so quickly to the gardens.”

“The herbs she gave me?”

He nodded, and I felt a fool. “But after you had eaten them, you spoke so fair to her that she came to doubt you could be what it was said you were. So she asked you, but you turned the question aside by pretending to not understand. So again she doubted you. Still, it should not have taken her all night to come to me with her tale of what she had done, and her doubts of the wisdom of it. For that, I apologize.”

“Too late to apologize. I have already forgiven you,” I heard myself say.

Rurisk looked at me. “That was your father’s saying as well.” He glanced at the door a moment before Kettricken came through it. Once she was within the room, he slid the screen shut and took the tray from her. “Sit down,” he told her sternly. “And see another way of dealing with an assassin.” He lifted a heavy mug from the tray and drank deeply of it before passing it to me. He shot Kettricken another glance. “And if that was poisoned, you have just killed your brother as well.” He broke an apple pastry into three portions. “Select one,” he told me, and then took that one for himself, and gave the next I chose to Kettricken. “So you may see there is nothing amiss with this food.”

“I see small reason why you would give me poison this morning after coming to tell me I was poisoned last night,” I admitted. Still, my palate was alive, questing for the slightest mistaste. But there was none. It was rich, flaky pastry stuffed with ripe apples and spices. Even if I had not been so empty, it would have been delicious.

“Exactly,” Rurisk said in a sticky voice, and then swallowed. “And, if you were an assassin”—here he shot a warning to silence to Kettricken—“you would find yourself in the same position. Some murders are only profitable if no one else knows they were murders. Such would be my death. Were you to slay me now, indeed, were I to die within the next six months, Kettricken and Jonqui both would be shrieking to the stars that I had been assassinated. Scarcely a good foundation for an alliance of peoples. Do you agree?”

I managed a nod. The warm broth in the mug had stilled most of my trembling, and the sweet pastry tasted fit for a god.

“So. We agree that were you an assassin, there would now be no profit to carrying out my murder. Indeed, there would be a very great loss to you if I died. For my father does not look on this alliance with the favor that I do. Oh, he knows it is wise, for now. But I see it as more than wise. I see it as necessary.

“Tell this to King Shrewd. Our population grows, but there is a limit to our arable soil. Wild game will only feed so many. Comes a time when a country must open itself to trade, especially so rocky and mountainous a country as mine. You have heard, perhaps, that the Jhaampe way is that the ruler is the servant of his people? Well, I serve them in this wise. I marry my beloved younger sister away, in the hopes of winning grain and trade routes and lowland goods for my people, and grazing rights in the cold part of the year when our pastures are under snow. For this, too, I am willing to give you timbers, the great straight timbers that Verity will need to build his warships. Our mountains grow white oak such as you have never seen. This is a thing my father would refuse. He has the old feelings about the cutting of live trees. And like Regal, he sees your coast as a liability, your ocean as a great barrier. But I see it as your father did—a wide road that leads in all directions, and your coast as our access to it. And I see no offense in using trees uprooted by the annual floods and windstorms.”

I held my breath a moment. This was a momentous concession. I found myself nodding to his words.

“So, will you carry my words to King Shrewd, and say to him that it is better to have a live friend in me?”

I could think of no reason not to agree.

“Aren’t you going to ask him if he intended to poison you?” Kettricken demanded.

“If he answered yes, you would never trust him. If he answered no, you would probably not believe him, and think him a liar as well as an assassin. Besides, is not one admitted poisoner in this room enough?”

Kettricken ducked her head and a flush suffused her cheeks.

“So come,” Rurisk told her, and held out a conciliatory hand. “Our guest must get what little rest he can before the day’s festivities. And we must be back to our chambers before the whole household wonders why we are dashing about in our nightclothes.”

And they left me, to lie back on my bed and wonder. What manner of folk were these that I dealt with? Could I believe their open honesty, or was it a magnificent sham for Eda knew what ends? I wished Chade were here. More and more, I felt nothing was as it seemed. I dared not doze, for I knew if I fell asleep, nothing would wake me before nightfall. Servants came soon with pitchers of warm water and cool, and fruit and cheese on a platter. Reminding myself that these “servants” might be better born than myself, I treated them all with great courtesy and later wondered if that might not be the secret of the harmonious household, that all servants or royalty, be treated with the same courtesy.

It was a day of great festivity. The entries to the palace had been thrown wide-open, and folk had come from every vale and dell of the Mountain Kingdom to witness this pledging. Poets and minstrels performed, and more gifts were exchanged, including my formal presentation of the herbals and herb starts. The breeding stock that had been sent from the Six Duchies was displayed and then gifted forth again to those most in need of it, or most likely to be successful with it. A single ram or bull, with a female or two, might be sent out as a common gift to the whole village. All of the gifts, whether fowl or beast or grain or metal, were brought within the palace so that all might admire them.

Burrich was there, the first time I had glimpsed him in days. He must have been up before dawn, to have his charges so glossy. Every hoof was freshly oiled, every mane and tail plaited with bright ribbons and bells. The mare to be given to Kettricken was saddled and bridled in harness of finest leather, and her mane and tail hung with so many tiny silver bells that each swish of her tail was a chorus of tinkling. Our horses were different creatures from the small and shaggy stock of the mountain folk, and attracted quite a crowd. Burrich looked weary, yet proud, and his horses stood calmly amidst the clamor. Kettricken spent a deal of time admiring her mare, and I saw her courtesy and deference thawing Burrich’s reserve. When I drew closer, I was surprised to hear him speaking in hesitant but clear Chyurda.

But a greater surprise was in store for me that afternoon. Food had been set out on long tables, and all, palace residents and visitors, dined freely. Much had come from the kitchens of the palace, but much more from the mountain folk themselves. They came forward, without hesitation, to set out wheels of cheese, and loaves of dark bread, and dried or smoked meats, or pickles or bowls of fruit. It would have been tempting, had not my stomach still been so touchy. But the way the food was given was what impressed me. It was unquestioning, this giving and taking between the royalty and their subjects. I noted, too, there were no sentries or guards of any kind upon the doors. And all mingled and talked as they ate.

At noon precisely a silence fell over the crowd. The Princess Kettricken alone ascended the central dais. In simple language, she announced to all that she now belonged to the Six Duchies and hoped to serve that land well. She thanked her land for all it had ever done for her, for the food it had grown to feed her, the waters of its snows and rivers, the air of the mountain breezes. She reminded all that she did not change her allegiance due to any lack of love for her land, but rather in the hopes of it benefiting both the lands. All kept silent as she spoke, and as she descended from the dais. And then the merriment resumed.

Rurisk came, seeking me out, to see how I did. I did my best to assure him I was fully recovered, though in truth I longed to be sleeping. The clothing Mistress Hasty had decreed for me was of the latest court fashion and featured highly inconvenient sleeves and tassels that fell into anything I tried to do or eat, and an uncomfortably snug waist. I longed to be out of the press of people, where I could loosen some laces and get rid of the collar, but knew that if I left now, Chade would frown when I reported to him and demand that I somehow know all that had happened while I was absent. Rurisk, I think, sensed my need for a bit of quiet, for he suddenly proposed a stroll out to his kennels. “Let me show you what the addition of some Six Duchies blood a few years back did for my dogs,” he offered.

We left the palace and walked down a short way to a long, low wooden building. The clean air cleared my head and lifted my spirits. Inside, he showed me a pen where a bitch presided over a litter of red pups. They were healthy little creatures, glossy of coat, nipping and tumbling about in the straw. They came readily, totally unafraid of us. “These are of Buckkeep lineage, and will hold to a scent even in a downpour,” he told me proudly. He showed me other breeds as well, including a tiny dog with wiry legs, which, he claimed, would clamber right up a tree after game.

We emerged from his kennels and out into the sun, where an older dog slept lazily on a pile of straw. “Sleep on, old man. You’ve fathered enough pups that you never need hunt again, except you love it so,” Rurisk told him genially. At his master’s voice, the old hound heaved himself to his feet and came to lean affectionately on Rurisk. He looked up at me, and it was Nosy.

I stared at him, and his copper-ore eyes returned the look. I quested softly toward him, and for a moment received only puzzlement. And then a flood of warmth, of affection shared and remembered. There was no doubt that he was Rurisk’s hound now; the intensity of the bond that had been between us was gone. But he offered me back great fondness and warm memories of when we were puppies together. I went down on one knee, and stroked the red coat gone all bristly with the years, and looked into the eyes that were beginning to show the clouding of age. For an instant, with the physical touch, the bond was as it had been. I knew he was enjoying dozing in the sun, but could be persuaded to go hunt with very little trouble. Especially if Rurisk came along. I patted his back and drew away from him. I looked up to find Rurisk regarding me strangely. “I knew him when he was just a puppy,” I told him.

“Burrich sent him to me, in care of a wandering scribe, these many years ago,” Rurisk told me. “He has brought me great pleasure, in company and in hunting.”

“You have done well by him,” I said. We left and strolled back to the palace, but as soon as Rurisk left my side, I went straight to Burrich. As I came up he had just received permission to take the horses outside and into the open air, for even the calmest beast will grow restive in close quarters with many strangers. I could see his dilemma; while he was taking horses out he would be leaving the others untended. He looked up warily as I approached.

“With your leave, I will help you move them,” I offered.

Burrich’s face remained impassive and polite. But before he could open his mouth to speak, a voice behind me said, “I am here to do that, master. You might soil your sleeves, or overly weary yourself working with beasts.” I turned slowly, baffled by the venom in Cob’s voice. I glanced from him to Burrich, but Burrich did not speak. I looked squarely at Burrich.

“Then I will walk alongside you, if I may, for I have something important we must speak of.” My words were deliberately formal. For a moment longer Burrich gazed at me. “Bring the Princess’s mare,” he said at last, “and that bay filly. I will take the grays. Cob, mind the rest for me. I shan’t be long.”

And so I took the mare’s head and the filly’s lead rope and followed Burrich as he edged the horses through the crowd and out of doors. “There is a paddock, this way,” he said, and no more. We walked for a bit in silence. The crowd thinned rapidly once we were away from the palace. The horses’ hooves thudded pleasantly against the earth. We came to the paddock, which fronted on a small barn with a tack room. For a moment or two it almost seemed normal to be working alongside Burrich again. I unsaddled the mare and wiped the nervous sweat from her while he shook out grain into a grain box for them. He came to stand beside me as I finished with the mare. “She’s a beauty,” I said admiringly. “From Lord Ranger’s stock?”

“Yes.” His word cut off the conversation. “You wished to speak to me.”

I took a great breath, then said it simply. “I just saw Nosy. He’s fine. Older now, but he’s had a happy life. All these years, Burrich, I always believed you killed him that night. Dashed out his brains, cut his throat, strangled him—I imagined it a dozen different ways, a thousand times. All those years.”

He looked at me incredulously. “You believed I would kill a dog for something you did?”

“I only knew he was gone. I could imagine nothing else. I thought it was my punishment.”

For a long time he was still. When he looked back up at me, I could see his torment. “How you must have hated me.”

“And feared you.”

“All those years? And you never learned better of me, never thought to yourself, He would not do such a thing?”

I shook my head slowly.

“Oh, Fitz,” he said sadly. One of the horses came to nudge at him, and he petted it absently. “I thought you were stubborn and sullen. You thought you had been grievously wronged. No wonder we have been so much at odds.”

“It can be undone,” I offered quietly. “I have missed you, you know. Missed you sorely, despite all our differences.”

I watched him thinking, and for a moment or two I thought he would smile and clap me on the shoulder and tell me to go fetch the other horses. But his face grew still, and then stern. “But for all that, it did not stop you. You believed I had it in me to kill any animal you used the Wit on. But it did not stop you from doing it.”

“I don’t see it the way you do,” I began, but he shook his head.

“We are better parted, boy. Better for both of us. There can be no misunderstandings if there are no understandings at all. I can never approve, or ignore, what you do. Never. Come to me when you can say you will do it no more. I will take your word on it, for you’ve never broken your word to me. But until then, we are better parted.”

He left me standing by the paddock and went back for his other horses. I stood a long time, feeling sick and weary, and not just from Kettricken’s poison. But I went back into the palace, and walked about, and spoke to people, and ate, and even endured with silence the mocking, triumphant smiles Cob gave me.

The day seemed longer than any two days in my previous experience. Had not it been for my burning and gurgling stomach, I would have found it exciting and absorbing. The afternoon and early evening were given over to congenial contests of archery, wrestling, and footraces. Young and old, male and female, joined in on these contests, and there seemed to be some mountain tradition that whoever won such contests on such an auspicious occasion would enjoy luck for a full turn of a year. Then there was more food, and singing, and dancing of dancers, and an entertainment, like a puppet show, but done all with shadows on a screen of silk. By the time folk began to retire, I was more than ready for my bed. It was a relief to close my chamber screen and be alone. I was just pulling off my annoying shirt and reflecting on what a strange day it had been when there was a tap at my door.

Before I could speak, Sevrens slid open the screen and slipped in. “Regal commands your presence,” he told me.

“Now?” I asked owlishly.

“Why else would he send me now?” Sevrens demanded.

Wearily I pulled my shirt back on and followed him out of the room. Regal’s chambers were in an upper level of the palace. It was not really a second floor, but more like a wooden terrace built to one side of the Great Hall. The walls were screens, and there was a sort of balcony where he might stand and look down before descending. These rooms were much more richly decorated. Some of the work was obviously Chyurda, bright birds brushed onto silk panels and figurines carved of amber. But much of the tapestries and statues and hangings looked to me like things Regal had acquired for his own pleasure and comfort. I stood waiting in his antechamber while he finished his bath. By the time he ambled out in his nightshirt, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open.

“Well?” he demanded of me.

I looked at him blankly. “You summoned me,” I reminded him.

“Yes. I did. I should like to know why it was necessary. I thought you had received some sort of training in this sort of thing. How long were you going to wait before you reported to me?”

I could think of nothing to say. I had never remotely considered reporting to Regal. To Shrewd or Chade, definitely, and to Verity. But to Regal?

“Need I remind you of your duty? Report.”

I hastily gathered my wits. “Would you hear my observations on the Chyurda as a people? Or information on the herbs they grow? Or—”

“I want to know what you are doing about your…assignment. Have you acted yet? Have you made a plan? When can we expect results, and of what kind? I scarcely want the Prince dropping dead at my feet, and me unprepared for it.”

I could scarcely credit what I was hearing. Never had Shrewd spoken so bluntly or so openly of my work. Even when our privacy was assured, he circled and danced and left me to draw my own conclusions. I had seen Sevrens go into his other chamber, but had no idea where the man was now or how sound carried in this chamber. And Regal was speaking as if we were discussing shoeing a horse.

“Are you being insolent, or stupid?” Regal demanded.

“Neither,” I rejoined as politely as I was able. “I am being cautious. My prince.” I added the last in the hopes of putting the conversation on a more formal level.

“You are being foolishly cautious. I trust my valet, and there is no one else here. So report. My bastard assassin.” He said the last words as if he thought them cleverly sarcastic.

I took a breath and reminded myself that I was a king’s man. And in this time and place, this was as close to a king as I was going to get. I chose my phrases carefully. “Yesterday, in the garden, Princess Kettricken told me you had told her I was a poisoner and that her brother, Rurisk, was my target.”

“A lie,” Regal said decisively. “I told her nothing of the kind. Either you had clumsily betrayed yourself, or she was merely fishing for information. I hope you have not spoiled all by revealing yourself to her.”

I could have lied much better than he did. I let his remarks slide by and went on. I gave him a full report, of my poisoning, and of Rurisk and Kettricken’s early-morning visit. I repeated our conversation verbatim. And when I was finished, Regal spent a number of minutes looking at his nails before he spoke to me. “And have you decided on a method and time yet?”

I tried not to show my surprise. “Under the circumstances, I thought it better to abandon the assignment.”

“No nerve,” Regal observed with disgust. “I asked Father to send that old whore Lady Thyme. She’d have had him in his grave by now.”

“Sir?” I asked questioningly. That he referred to Chade as Lady Thyme made me nearly certain that he knew nothing at all. He suspected, of course, but making revelations about Chade was definitely outside my realm.

“Sir?” Regal mimicked back at me, and for the first time I realized the man was drunk. Physically, he carried it well. He did not stink of it, but it brought all his pettiness to the surface. He sighed heavily, as if too disgusted for words, then flung himself down on a couch draped with blankets and cushions. “Nothing has changed,” he informed me. “You’ve been given your task. Do it. If you are clever, you can make it appear an accident. Having been so naively open with Kettricken and Rurisk, neither will expect it. But I want it done. Before tomorrow evening.”

“Before the wedding?” I asked incredulously. “Don’t you think the death of the bride’s brother might lead her to cancel it?”

“It would be no more than temporary if she did. I have her well in hand, boy. She is easily dazzled. That end of this thing is my concern. Yours is getting rid of her brother. Now. How will you do it?”

“I’ve no idea.” That seemed a better answer than saying I had no intention. I would return to Buckkeep and report back to Shrewd and Chade. If they said I had chosen wrongly, then they might do with me as they wished. But I remembered Regal’s own voice, from so long ago, quoting Shrewd. Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it.

“When will you know?” he demanded sarcastically.

“I don’t know,” I hedged. “These things cannot be done recklessly or sloppily. I need to study the man and his habits, explore his chambers, and learn the habits of his servants. I must find a way to—”

“The wedding is two days hence,” Regal interrupted. The focus of his eyes softened. “I already know all the things you say you must discover. Easiest, then, for me to plan it for you. Come to me tomorrow night, and I will give you your orders. Mind this well, bastard. I do not want you to act before you have informed me. I would find any surprise unpleasant. You would find it deadly.” He lifted his eyes to mine, but I kept my face a careful blank.

“You are dismissed,” he told me regally. “Report to me here, tomorrow night, at the same time. Do not make me send Sevrens to fetch you. He has more important tasks. And do not think my father will not hear of your laxity. He will. He will regret not sending Bitch Thyme to do this little deed.” He leaned back heavily and yawned, and I caught a whiff of wine, and a subtle smoke. I wondered if he was learning his mother’s habits.

I returned to my chambers, intending to ponder carefully all my options and formulate a plan. But so weary was I and half-sick still that I was asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

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

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