The sequel to Assassin’s Apprentice opens with FitzChivalry in the capital city of the Mountain Kingdom, Jhaampe, recovering from being poisoned. While he had recovered somewhat, he had violent, uncontrollable spasms that made travel back to Buckkeep impossible. In fact, living was painful, and Fitz decided to give up his duty to King Shrewd. Burrich was with him, having recovered from a hit to the head designed to kill him, tried unsuccessfully to persuade him otherwise. Fitz’s ability with the Skill was not very reliable, but it seemed to manifest itself strongly in his dreams. That night he had a dream where he was King Shrewd, attended by the Fool, and he saw Raiders attacking, even though it was the middle of winter. He was tired, and he hurt for the people of his kingdom, but he could do nothing. As King Shrewd he saw the Raiders attack, he saw the desperate fighting, and he knew that villagers would give their children poison pellets to prevent them from being Forged by the Raiders. He saw his love, Molly, there, with two children, ready to defend herself. He understood more of King Shrewd, and he was introduced to the loving devotion of the Fool for his King. And he decided to go back.
Immediately upon arriving Fitz noticed that Buckkeep was different—most notably, all the places a man tends to gloss over were clean, but there were also subtle decorations and additions that made it feel more like a home. He knew it was Queen-in-waiting Kittricken’s influence. He made a report to King-in-waiting Verity, and paid a visit to Lady Patience, his father’s wife who was trying to mother him. He met with Chade, his assassin-master. He wandered down to Buck town, and found a wolf cub that a trapper had caught, and he could not stand it cooped up in there, so he bought it from the trapper, and also managed to use his Wit to communicate with the birds how to open their cages.
The wolf hated all men, but between the Wit and by fighting with it and getting it by the throat, the wolf acknowledged that he was the leader of the pack. Fitz took it to a shack a little ways away that ways that was used by keep shepherds in the summer, and took food to it. The wolf kept trying to bond with him, but he refused, saying that they were not pack. After the wolf was big enough to survive on his own, he took it out and repelled it, using the Wit to push the wolf away. Just minutes later he was attacked by Forged ones, which always took him by surprise, since he could not sense them with the Wit. The wolf came to his aid—they were pack—and they bonded. Now in addition to doing all the things the adults in his life wanted him to do, he also had to figure out ways to hunt at twilight with the wolf.
Verity was so absorbed with trying to figure out how to defend the Six Duchies from the Raiders that he did not have much time for his new wife, Kettricken. Regal, Verity’s younger brother, took it upon himself to teach her to hunt, so that she would have some way to occupy her time. One day she got lost on the hunt—accidentally, surely—in an area with Forged ones. It was only by chance that Fitz and the wolf were hunting nearby, found her, and defended her. Forged ones seemed to be drawn to the area around Buckkeep more than they had before, something that had been noted by Verity, but he was unsure why or what to do about it. The Buckkeep guard organized a hunt of revenge on the Forged ones, but Kettricken turned it in to a noble hunt, where the Forged ones were killed so that their body would be absent just as their souls already were, and to bring closure for the families of those who had been Forged. It was successful at bringing together the people and healing some hurts.
However, it became clear that Regal wanted her dead. In fact, as time progressed it became clear that he wanted the throne, and would ruthlessly stop at nothing to get it. His mother was King Shrewd’s second wife, and had come from the wealthy inland duchies, and was even from ancient royal blood. She taught him that he was the real royalty, and he resented everyone who stood in his way. This meant that Kettricken, Verity, Fitz, and even King Shrewd were not safe.
The King, in fact, was growing weaker, and was confined to his chambers. He began taking smoke, which made his mind weak. His doctor seemed to exacerbate the problem with his prescriptions, mostly of smoke. Fitz and the Fool became allies, as both were devoted to the King and both grieved at his increasing ill health and his addled mind which Regal took advantage of to get the King to order whatever it was that he wanted. At some point Fitz had another Skill dream and felt the King’s illness, and the intense pain that accompanied it, and he had more compassion on the King and the smokes after that than he did previously.
Molly turned up at the castle, having escaped from the Stilbay attack. Patience took her as a servant, and she (as well as Chade) told Fitz that he could not see her, that not only was it not appropriate, but it would put her in danger. Plus he was a King’s Man; he was not free to marry as he chose, but needed permission from the King, who was rarely in a frame of mind to ask, and even less was he available. Nonetheless, Fitz pursued her, and he discovered that the guy she had been with previously was her cousin, and that she loved him, who she knew as Newboy. Their romance blossomed, and now his nighttime became as active as his daytime, what with hunting with Nighteyes the wolf, and nocturnal meetings with Chade.
Fitz considered Molly his wife by intent, but he had to get the King’s permission to marry her, and he managed to get in to see the King when he was alert. The King said that he had permission to court the daughter of one of the coastal Duchies that was interested in him. Shrewd wanted Fitz to be provided for, bastard or not, and this would improve his position. But a political marriage was not what Fitz wanted. He was able to be clearer who he wanted to marry on another day and the King refused.
Meanwhile, Verity was building ships during the winter with the long straight pine wood that was Kettricken’s dowry so as to be able to defend the coast. Fitz was still not able to reliably Skill with Verity, even though Verity attempted to teach him some. The coterie that Galen had trained was of little use to Verity, not being trained to give of themselves to strengthen Verity’s Skilling, as was the role of coteries of old. They were simply messengers from a distance. Verity was able to ride along with Fitz if he created a skill bond and renewed it with touch every couple of weeks. Although Fitz could not reliable talk to Verity with it, Verity could see with Fitz’s eyes. Verity had Fitz become one of the soldiers and rowers on the boats. He also found that Fitz had a lot more affinity with an axe as a weapon, than a sword, so he had Fitz trained with the axe.
Fitz now battled the Raiders, and when he battled on land, frequently the wolf fought on the edges with him. Fitz began to get a reputation for going a bit berserk during battle. The Wit connection with the wolf was strong, and sometimes Nighteyes’ emotions flowed into his own. In fact, it was sometimes hard to tell where one he stopped and the wolf began. They were always together, and Nighteyes did not think that there should be any separation (Fitz had to tell him sternly to keep out of his mind when he was with Molly). There were rumors that some of the raiders were killed by an animal, although none of it stuck to Fitz, which was fortunate, because having the Wit was seen as evil and necessitated death by burning over water.
Despite some successes, the Verity was not winning. Warnings frequently did not arrive on time, and nothing seemed to go right for Verity. The coastal dukes began to get very nervous. Verity was as devoted to protecting his subjects as Burrich, Chade, and Fitz were devoted to the service of King Shrewd (and by extension, King-in-waiting Verity), even to the point of neglecting his wife Kettricken who longed to be loved by him. But no matter how much time or effort he spent in Skill-confusing the Raiders, he could not see any way to be successful.
Verity came to the conclusion that the Six Duchies’ only chance was to seek the Elderlings in the abode beyond the Mountain Kingdom. Long ago, King Wisdom had sought their aid when in a similar situation, and they had promised their aid in the future if they were needed. Little was known about them, and the few images on tapestries and scrolls were not at all consistent. Even less was known about where they could be found, although Verity did find a map with Kettricken’s help that showed three trails. Verity got King Shrewd’s permission to seek the Elderlings, and left, much to the sadness of Kettricken, who wanted to go with him, and of Fitz, who in addition to being devoted to his service had grown to love Verity.
With Verity gone on what Fitz considered a wild goose chase, it became clear that Regal was killing Shrewd. As Shrewd became weaker, Regal bent him more and more to his will. He even was so bold as to start selling of Burrich’s carefully bread lineage of horses and hunting dogs, and either selling or moving to Regal’s mother’s duchy everything of value in the keep. Fitz, with Chade’s advice, started coaching Kettricken on palace intrigue so that she would not be run over by Regal.
Fitz and the Fool became sort of friends (albeit tempered by the sharp wit that the Fool had to use in public), increasingly close, as they tried to wake Shrewd up and prevent Regal from taking over. The Fool tried to prod Fitz to do something by means of riddles. This frustrated Fitz, but eventually the Fool told him that the riddles were designed to make him think about things and discover the meaning. The Fool had grown up in the far south, and was a prophet. He had seen the future, which his culture knew to be reliable because they had been keeping records of visions for centuries and could see how accurate they were. The world was at a nexus, and if the Raiders won, the world would descend into a long, deep darkness. It was a Farseer heir started a path to a positive future, and the Fool could sense that the opportunities centered around Fitz somehow.
However, nothing went their way. After about a year, Molly could not handle being second in Fitz’s life, even if first was the King, so she left, enigmatically saying that she had found someone who would place her first and whom she could love fully. The King got closer and closer to death and Regal became more and more in control. Fitz tried to Skill with the King to Verity to convince the King to escape with Kettricken, and he felt the King die as if a bubble popped. The Fool emotionally accused Fitz of killing the King (by accidentally draining the King’s Skill instead of adding to it), but they prevented Regal from acting on it. However, Fitz recognized that some of Galen’s coterie were there with the King and he. Some time prior, Verity had first sensed Will’s presence, and slowly Fitz became aware, aided by Nighteye’s keen instinct fed by Fitz’s senses. Fitz knew that the coterie had drained the King, and in anger and deep grief for the King he loved, Fitz found two of the coterie. He killed one and pursued the other into the banquet hall, stabbing him to death like a crazed man in front of all the guests who Regal had summoned to appoint him King-in-waiting (the coterie had reported Verity dead, although Fitz could sense his presence in his mind, and occasionally communicate, so he knew that Verity was alive, although in pain of some sort).
Regal imprisoned Fitz in the dungeon, and it was clear that Fitz was not going to leave alive. Regal was going to ensure that Fitz was proven to have the Wit, to kill him, and be appointed King by the Dukes. The coastal Dukes resisted, having decided that Fitz was their leader. Regal brought Will to attack Fitz with the Skill, and brought goons to attack him physically. Fitz knew that if Will got inside his Skill defenses he was dead, so he took the brutal physical attack. He tried to kill Regal with a poison he had sewed in his clothes for a different reason, but he had wanted it too badly. Will felt it and pushed Regal out of the way, inhaling a good bit of poison instead of Regal, although probably not enough to kill him. Regal beat Fitz within an inch of his life.
Burrich forced his way to visit Fitz, and loudly insulted him, saying that he should just lay down and die. Hurt physically and emotionally, Fitz did not move, but later he found that Burrich had dropped a package. Given his words, it was probably a poison. Fitz resisted taking it for a day. Nighteyes kept imploring him to leave his body join him, but Fitz did not know how to do that. After Regal’s goons beat him up the next day, Fitz gave up. He took the poison, and as his life wound down, his spirit joined the body of the wolf.
Fitz and Nighteyes hunted together for glorious days. The wolf lived only in the present, not worrying about the future or the schemes of men. They had fun hunting rabbits. They ate when they were hungry. And they enjoyed sharing life together.
After some time, Burrich called to them via Wit. Burrich hated the Wit and never used it, but he had the ability. Fitz was the son of Burrich’s beloved master Chivalry, whom Chivalry had entrusted to him. Furthermore, Lady Patience had given Fitz the emerald earring that Chivalry had worn, and the wearer of which Burrich had sworn to follow and aid. There were legends of someone Witted who had cheated death by joining with their bonded animal, so Chade and Burrich had conspired together. Chade mixed the potion, and Burrich communicate with the wolf. The hunting dogs called Burrich “Heart of the Pack”, and so did Nighteyes. Heart of the Pack called Fitz to come back to his own body, and to Nighteyes to release Fitz. Burrich and Chade had exhumed Fitz’s body, dead only in appearance. Regal had manufactured evidence of Fitz’s Wit to convince even the Dukes, who crowned Regal king, but his body was not burned over water, but buried instead because he was of royal birth, albeit a bastard. Fitz no longer felt any self-identity, and Nighteyes was loathe to release him, but Heart of the Pack was insistent, and Fitz came to himself. Alive, but with nothing.
Royal Assassin continues Hobb’s deeply engaging writing. Although the world is limited mostly to Buckkeep, it is a world rich with different characters. From the cook who still treats Fitz kind of like the lost child he was when he arrived at the keep, to the main characters, all are different and all are very real. The book continues the themes of love and service. Fitz chooses his loving service to the King over putting Molly first (just as Burrich had chosen Chivalry over Lady Patience before she had met Chivalry), and Molly needs to be first, so she leaves. Nighteyes is also competing to be first, but does not really succeed. The Fool is clearly revealed as the loving servant of King Shrewd. The Fool came to guide events into the path of light, but he truly loved King Shrewd, not just the prophecy and the future. Verity loves and serves his people, and in so doing opens them up to Regal’s exploitation. Chade, also a royal bastard, is the loyal servant of his brother Shrewd, but cannot see Regal’s abject ruthlessness until it is too late. Almost, almost Kettricken does not escape, as their plans were betrayed by her bright and attentive young page, who turned out to be in Regal’s service. Kettricken loves Verity, but he is more devoted to his kingdom than to her, although he does spend a few nights with her before leaving, and she carries his heir. Generally the characters’ love is in the service of their master, with the exception of the two women.
This is a hard book to read, because Hob invests the reader into the people as much as the characters themselves, so it is painful to see someone with no character usurp and destroy the plans of everyone who is trying against odds to save the kingdom and serve those they love. It is even painful to see the kingdom harried and helpless, the people driven from the homes or Forged, sheep without a shepherd as Regal careless abandons the coastal duchies to enjoy the rich life at his mother’s inland duchy. Hobb takes the writer’s advice of “push your characters until their breaking point and see what happens” further than any other author I have read, and invests the reader fully in the story. This book will consume your life.