Fools assassin, p.11
Part #1 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
A cold wind blew through me, and for a moment, I felt as if I were being choked mercilessly. As abruptly as it had begun, it stopped, but I felt the wall that Chade had quickly erected. There were dark, harsh memories back there. Was it possible he’d had a tutor whom he had dreaded and feared as much as I had Galen? Galen had been more interested in trying to kill me quietly than teaching me how to Skill. And the so-called Skillmaster had almost succeeded. Under the guise of creating a new Skill-coterie to aid King Verity in his efforts against the Red-Ship Raiders, Galen had battered and humiliated me and almost extinguished my talent for the magic. And he had corrupted the coterie’s loyalty to the true Farseer monarch. Galen had been Queen Desire’s tool and then Prince Regal’s as they had tried to rid themselves of the Farseer bastard and put Regal upon the throne. Dark days. I knew Chade could tell where my thoughts had gone. I admitted it to him, hoping to draw him out a bit. Well. There’s an “old friend” I hadn’t thought about in years.
Scarcely a friend. But speaking of old friends, have you heard from your old companion lately? The Fool?
Did he deliberately change the topic so abruptly, to try to catch me off guard? It worked. As I blocked him from my reaction, I knew that my defensive impulse told him just as much as all I tried to hide from him. The Fool. I had not heard from the Fool in years.
I found I was staring at the Fool’s last gift to me, the carving of the three of us, him, me, and my wolf Nighteyes. I lifted a hand toward it, and then pulled it back. I never again wanted to see his expression change from that half-quirked smile it wore. Let me remember him that way. We had journeyed through life together for many years, endured hardships and near-death together. More than one death, I thought to myself. My wolf had died, and my friend had parted from me without a farewell, and with never a message since. I wondered if he thought I was dead. I refused to wonder if he was dead. He couldn’t be. Often he’d told me that he was far older than I knew, and expected to live much longer than I would. He had cited that as one reason for leaving. He had warned me that he was going away before we last parted. He had believed he was freeing me of bond and obligation, setting me loose finally to pursue my own inclinations. But the unfinished parting had left a wound, and over the years the wound had become the sort of scar that ached at the change of the seasons. Where was he now? Why had he never sent as much as a missive? If he had believed me dead, why had he left a gift for me? If he had believed I would appear again, why had he never contacted me? I pulled my eyes away from the carving.
I haven’t seen him or received a message from him since I left Aslevjal. That’s been, what, fourteen years? Fifteen? Why do you ask now?
I thought as much. You will recall that I was interested in the tales of the White Prophet long before the Fool declared himself as such.
I do. I first heard the term from you. I kept my curiosity on a tight leash, refusing to ask any more questions. When Chade had first begun to show me writings about the White Prophet, I had regarded them as yet another odd religion from a faraway place. Eda and El I understood well enough. El, the sea god, was a god best left alone, merciless and demanding. Eda, the goddess of the farmlands and the pastures, was generous and maternal. But even for those Six Duchies gods, Chade had taught me small reverence, and even less for Sa, the two-faced and double-gendered god of Jamaillia. So his fascination with the legends of the White Prophet had mystified me. The scrolls foretold that to every generation was born a colorless child who would be gifted with prescience and the ability to influence the course of the world by the manipulation of events great and small. Chade had been intrigued by the idea, and with the legendary accounts of White Prophets who had prevented wars or toppled kings by triggering tiny events that cascaded into great ones. One account claimed a White Prophet had lived thirty years by a river simply so he could warn a single traveler on a certain night that the bridge would give way if he tried to cross it during a storm. The traveler, it revealed, went on to be the father of a great general who was instrumental in winning a battle in some distant country. I had believed it all charming nonsense until I met the Fool.
When he had declared himself a White Prophet, I had been skeptical, and even more so when he declared that I would be his Catalyst who would change the course of history. And yet undoubtedly we had done so. Had he not been at Buckkeep during my lifetime, I would have died. More than once, some intervention of his had preserved my life. In the Mountains, when I lay fevered and dying in the snow, he had carried me to his cottage there and nursed me back to health. He had kept me alive so that dragons might be restored to their rightful place in the world. I was still not sure that was beneficial to humanity, but there was no denying that without him, it would not have happened.
I only realized how deeply I had retreated into my memories when Chade’s thoughts jolted me back to awareness of him.
Well, we had some odd folk come through Buckkeep Town recently. About twenty days ago. I did not hear of them until after they had departed, or I would have found a way to learn more about them. The fellow who told me about them said they claimed to be traveling merchants, but the only wares they had were cheap gewgaws and very common bartering items, glass jewelry, brass bracelets, that sort of thing. Nothing of any real value, and though they claimed to have come a long way, my fellow said that it all looked to him as if it were the sort of common wares that a city merchant might take to a village fair, to be sure he had something for a lad or lass with only a half-copper to spend. No spices from a distant land or unique gemstones. Just tinker’s trash.
So your spy thought they were only pretending to be merchants. I tried not to be impatient. Chade believed in thorough reporting, for the truth could only be found in details. I knew he was right but wished he would jump to the heart of the matter and embroider it later.
He thought they were actually hoping to buy rather than to sell, or better yet to hear information for free. They were asking if anyone had encountered a friend of theirs, a very pale person. But the odd part was that there were several descriptions of the “pale friend. ” Some said a young man, traveling alone. Another said she was a woman grown, pale of face and hair, traveling with a young man with red hair and freckles. Yet another was asking after two young men, one very blond and the other dark-haired but white-skinned. As if the only description they had was that they were seeking a traveler who was unnaturally pale, who might be traveling alone or with a companion.
Or they were looking for people who might be traveling in disguise. It sounds as if they were looking for a White Prophet. But why in Buckkeep?
They never used the word “White Prophet,” and they did not seem like devout pilgrims on a quest. He paused. My fellow seemed to think they were hirelings sent on a mission, or perhaps mercenary hunters, promised a reward for their prey. One of them got drunk one night, and when his fellows came to the tavern to haul him away, he cursed them. In Chalcedean.
Interesting. I did not think the White Prophecies had any followers in Chalced. In any case, the Fool has not lived in Buckkeep for decades. And when last he was there, he was more tawny than pale. He masqueraded as Lord Golden.
Well, of course! I know all that! He took my musings to be a prod to his aging memory and was irritated by it. But few others do. Even so, their questions provoked some old tales of King Shrewd’s pale jester. But the merchants were not interested in such old news. They sought news of someone who had passed through Buckkeep recently.
And so you thought perhaps the Fool had returned?
It occurred to me to wonder. And I thought that if he had, he would have sought you out first. But if you have not heard from him, well, then it’s a mystery with few clues.
Where did these merchants go?
I sensed his frustration. The report reached me late. My fellow had not realized how much it would interest me. The rumor is that they followed the River Road inland.
Toward Withy. You said twenty days ago. And there are no more tidings of them?
They seem to have vanished quite effectively.
Not merchants, then.
We both fell silent for a time, pondering the few bits of information we had. If their destination had been Withywoods, they should have arrived. Perhaps they had, and then passed through the town to a more distant destination. There were not enough facts to make even a puzzle, let alone a solution.
Here is another interesting bit for you. When my spies reported back to me that they had no news of either a pale traveler or those merchants, one asked if I had interest in tales of other strangely pale folk. When I replied that I did, he told me of a murder along the King’s Road four years ago. Two bodies were found, both in foreign garb. They were discovered by the King’s Guard during a routine patrol. One fellow had been bludgeoned to death. Beside him was found another body, described as a young girl, pale as a fish’s belly with hair the color of an icicle. She, too, was dead, but there was no sign of violence done to her. Instead she appeared to have been dying of some wasting disease. She was near-skeletal but had died after the man, for she had torn strips from her cloak to try to bandage his wound. Perhaps her companion had been tending her, and when he was slain she had died as well. She was found a short distance from his corpse, near a small campfire. If they had had supplies or mounts, they were stolen. No one ever came to ask after them. It seemed a strange murder to my spy. They killed the man, but left the sickly woman alive and untouched. What sort of highwaymen would do that?
I felt oddly chilled by the tale. Perhaps she was hiding when they were attacked. It could be nothing.
Or, it could be something. Chade’s considering tone invited me to speculate. A small bit of information. She wore yellow boots. As did your messenger.
Unease prickled my scalp. That Winterfest night flooded back into my mind. How had Revel described the messenger? Hands as white as ice. I had thought them bloodless with cold. What if she had been a White? But Chade’s news of a murder was four years old. My messenger had come three winters ago. And his spies had brought him news of another messenger, or perhaps two, only twenty days ago. So possibly a succession of messengers, possibly Whites. Possibly from the Fool? I wanted to think about it alone. I wanted none of it to be so. The thought of a missed message from him tore my heart. I denied it. And it could be something that has absolutely nothing to do with either of us.
Somehow, I doubt that. But I shall let you go back to your bed now. Lack of sleep always made you irritable.
You saw to that often enough, I retorted, and he annoyed me even further by laughing. He vanished from my mind.
One of the candles was guttering. I pinched it out. Morning was not far away now; might as well light another taper, for there would be no more sleep for me. Why had Chade Skilled to me? To ask me about writing, or to tease me with a bit of news about foreign travelers who might or might not be connected to the Fool? I didn’t have enough information to ponder it, only enough to keep me awake. Perhaps I should remain at my desk and resume that translation; I certainly wasn’t going to find peace again tonight, thanks to Chade. I stood slowly and looked around me. The room was untidy. There was an empty brandy cup on the desk, and the two quills I’d botched cutting the night before. I should tidy the place. I didn’t allow the servants in here; indeed I would have been surprised to find that any of the servants other than Revel were aware of how much I used this chamber. I seldom came here during daylight hours or in the long evenings that Molly and I shared. No. This place was my refuge from restless nights, from the times when sleep forsook me or nightmares relentlessly assaulted me. And always I came here alone. Chade had inculcated in me a habit of stealth that had never left me. I was the sole custodian of this chamber in a little-used wing of the house. I brought the firewood in, and took the ashes out. I swept and tidied … well, sometimes I swept and tidied. The room was in sore need of such attention now, but somehow I could not muster that sort of energy.
Instead I stretched where I stood, and then halted, my hands reached up over my head, my eyes fixed on Verity’s sword over the mantel. Hod had made it for him, and she had been the finest swordsmith that Buckkeep had ever known. She’d died defending King Verity. Then Verity had surrendered his human life for his people as he entered into his dragon. Now he slept in stone, beyond my reach forever. My sudden pang of loss was almost physical. Abruptly, I had to get out of the room. There was too much within those walls that connected me to the past. I allowed myself one more slow sweep of the space. Yes. Here was where I stored my past and all the confusing emotions it engendered in me. This was where I came to try to make sense of my history. And it was also where I could barricade it behind a latched door, and go back to my life with Molly.
And for the first time, it came to me to wonder why. Why had I gathered it here in mimicry of Chade’s old chambers in Buckkeep Castle, and why did I come here, alone and sleepless, to dwell on tragedies and disasters that could never be undone? Why didn’t I leave this room, close the door behind me, and never return? I felt a stab of guilt, and seized that dagger to study it. Why? Why was it my duty to recall those I had lost, and mourn them still? I had fought so hard to win a life of my own, and I had triumphed. It was mine now; it was in my hands. Here I stood, in a room littered with dusty scrolls, spoiled quills, and reminders of the past while upstairs a warm woman who loved me slumbered alone.
My gaze fell on the Fool’s last gift to me. The three-faced memory-stone carving rested on the mantel over the fireplace. Whenever I looked up from my work at the desk, the Fool’s gaze met mine. I challenged myself; slowly I picked it up. I had not handled it since that Winterfest night three winters ago when I had heard the scream. Now I cradled it in my hands and stared into his carved eyes. A tremor of dread went through me, but I set my thumb to his brow. I “heard” the words it always spoke to me. “I have never been wise. ” That was all. Just those parting words, in his voice. Healing and tearing in the same moment. Carefully, I put the carving back on the mantel.
I walked to one of the two tall narrow windows, pushed aside the heavy drape, and looked down onto the kitchen garden of Withywoods. It was a humble view, fit for a scribe’s room, but lovely all the same. There was a moon, and the pearly light laced the leaves and buds of the growing herbs. White-pebbled paths ran between the beds and gathered the light to themselves. I lifted my eyes and looked beyond the gardens. Behind the grand manor that was Withywoods were rolling meadows and in the distance the forested flanks of mountains.
On this fine summer night and in this tamed valley, the sheep had been left out in the pasture. The ewes were larger blots, with the half-grown lambs clustered beside them. Above all, in the black sky, the stars glittered like a different sort of scattered flock. I could not see the vineyards on the hills behind the sheep pasture, nor the Withy River that wound through the holdings to eventually join with Buck River. To call it a river was something of a conceit, for in most places a horse could easily splash across it, and yet it never ran dry in the summer. Its generous and noisy flow fed the rich little valley. Withywoods was a placid and gentle holding, a place where even an assassin might mellow when pastured. I might tell Chade that I must go to town to discuss wool prices, but in truth he had the right of it. The old shepherd Lin and his three sons more tolerated than relied on me; I had learned a great deal from them but my insisting on visiting Withy to speak with the wool buyer was mostly for my own pride. Lin would accompany me and two of his sons, and though my handshake might seal whatever agreement we reached, Lin’s nod would tell me when to extend that clasp.
It was a very good life I had. When melancholy overtook me, I knew it was not for anything in my present, but only darkness from the past. And those bleak regrets were only memories, powerless to hurt me. I t
I let the drape fall back into place and then sneezed at the cloud of dust it released. Truly the room needed a good cleaning. But not tonight. Perhaps not any night. Maybe I would leave it tonight, let the door close behind me, and allow the past to keep its own company. I toyed with that notion as some men toy with the ambition of giving up drink. It would be good for me. It might be better for Molly and me. I knew I would not do it. I couldn’t say why. Slowly, I pinched out the remaining candle flames. Someday, I promised myself, and knew I lied.
When I shut the door behind me, the cool darkness of the corridor engulfed me. The floor was cold. An errant draft wandered the hallways; I sighed. Withywoods was a rambling place that required constant upkeep and repair. There was always something to do, something to busy Holder Badgerlock. I smiled to myself. What, did I wish that Chade’s midnight summons had been an order for me to assassinate someone? Better far that tomorrow’s project was consulting with Revel about a blocked chimney in the parlor.
I padded hastily along as I backtracked through the sleeping house. When I reached my bedchamber, I eased the door open silently and as quietly closed it behind me. My robe fell to the floor again as I slid under the coverlets. Molly’s warm flesh and sweet scent beckoned me. I shivered, waiting for the blankets to warm the chill from me and trying not to wake her. Instead she rolled to face me and drew me into her embrace. Her small warm feet perched on top of my icy ones, and she nestled her head under my chin and on my chest.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I whispered.
“You didn’t. I woke up and you weren’t here. I was waiting for you. ” She spoke quietly but not in a whisper.
“Sorry,” I said. She waited. “It was Chade Skilling to me. ”
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