Fools assassin, p.12
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       Fools Assassin, p.12

         Part #1 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  I felt but did not hear her sigh. “All is well?” she asked me quietly.

  “Nothing wrong,” I assured her. “Just a sleepless old man looking for some company. ”

  “Mm. ” She made a soft sound of agreement. “I can understand that well. I do not sleep as well as I did when I was young. ”

  “As true for me. We’re all getting older. ”

  She sighed and melted into me. I put my arms around her and closed my eyes.

  She cleared her throat softly. “As long as you’re not asleep … if you’re not too tired. ” She moved suggestively against me, and as always my breath caught in my throat. I smiled into the darkness. This was my Molly, as I knew her of old. Lately she had been so pensive and quiet that I had feared I had somehow hurt her feelings. But when I had asked her, she had shaken her head, looking down and smiling to herself. “I’m not ready to tell you yet,” she had teased me. Earlier in the day, I had walked into the room where she processed her honey and made the candles she created for our personal use. I had caught her standing motionless, the long taper she had been dipping dangling forgotten from her fingers as she stared off into the distance.

  She cleared her throat, and I realized I was the one who was woolgathering now. I kissed the side of her throat, and she made a sound almost like a purr.

  I gathered her closer. “I am not too tired. And I hope never to be that old. ”

  For a time, in that room, we were as young as we had ever been, save that with the experience of years of each other, there was no awkwardness, no hesitation. I once knew of a minstrel who bragged of having had a thousand women, one time each. He would never know what I knew, that to have one woman a thousand times, and each time find in her a different delight, is far better. I knew now what gleamed in the eyes of old couples when they saw each other across a room. More than once I had met Molly’s glance at a crowded family gathering, and known from the bend of her smile and her fingers touching her mouth exactly what she had in mind for us once we were alone. My familiarity with her was a more potent love elixir than any potion sold by a hedge-witch in the market.

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  Simple and good was our lovemaking, and very thorough. Afterward, her hair was netted across my chest, her breasts pressed warm against my side. I drifted, warm and content. She spoke softly by my ear, the breath of her words tickling.

  “My love?”

  “Um?”

  “We’re going to have a baby. ”

  My eyes flew open. Not with the joy I had once hoped to feel, but with the shock of dismay. I took three slow breaths, trying to find words, trying to find thoughts. I felt as if I had stepped from the warm lapping of water at a river’s edge into the cold deep current. Tumbled and drowning. I said nothing.

  “Are you awake?” she persisted.

  “I am. Are you? Are you talking in your sleep, my dear?” I wondered if she had slipped off into a dream, and was perhaps recalling another man and another time when she had whispered such momentous words and they had been true.

  “I’m awake. ” And sounding slightly irritated with me, she added, “Did you hear what I told you?”

  “I did. ” I steeled myself. “Molly. You know that can’t be so. You yourself told me that your days of bearing were past now. It has been years since—”

  “And I was wrong!” There was no mistaking the annoyance in her voice now. She seized my wrist and set my hand to her belly. “You must have seen that I’m getting larger. I’ve felt the baby move, Fitz. I didn’t want to say anything until I was absolutely certain. And now I am. I know it’s peculiar, I know it must seem impossible for me to be pregnant so many years after my courses have stopped flowing. But I know I am not mistaken. I’ve felt the quickening. I carry your child, Fitz. Before this winter is out, we will have a baby. ”

  “Oh, Molly,” I said. My voice shook and, as I gathered her closer, my hands were shaking. I held her, kissed her brow and her eyes.

  She slipped her arms around me. “I knew you would be pleased. And astonished,” she said happily. She settled against me. “I’ll have the servants move the cradle from the attic. I went looking for it a few days ago. It’s still there. It’s fine old oak, with not a joint loose in it. Finally, it will be filled! Patience would have been so thrilled to know that finally there will be a Farseer’s child at Withywoods. But I won’t use her nursery. It’s too far from our bedchamber. I think I will make one of the rooms on the ground floor into a special nursery for me and for our child. Perhaps the Sparrow Chamber. I know that as I get heavier, I will not want to climb the stairs too often …”

  She went on, breathlessly detailing her plans, speaking of the screens she would move from Patience’s old sewing room, and how the tapestries and rugs must be cleaned well, and the lamb’s wool she wished spun fine and dyed especially for our child. I listened to her, speechless with terror. She was drifting away from me, her mind gone to a place where mine could not follow. I had seen her aging in the last few years. I’d noticed the swelling of her knuckles, and how she sometimes paused on the stairs to catch her breath. I’d heard her, more than once, call Tavia the kitchenmaid by her mother’s name. Lately Molly would begin a task and then wander off, leaving it half-done. Or she would enter a room, look around, and ask me, “Now, what was it I came here to get?”

  We had laughed about such lapses. But there was nothing funny about this slipping of her mind. I held her close as she prattled on about the plans she had obviously been making for months. My arms wrapped her and held her, but I feared I was losing her.

  And then I would be alone.

  Chapter Five

  Arrival

  It is common knowledge that once a woman has passed her childbearing years, she becomes more vulnerable to all sorts of ailments of the flesh. As her monthly courses dwindle and then cease, many women experience sudden flushes of heat or bouts of heavy sweating, often in the night. Sleep may flee from them and a general weariness possess them. The skin of her hands and feet becomes thinner, making cuts and wounds to these extremities more common. Desire commonly wanes, and some women may actually assume a more mannish demeanor, with shrinking breasts and facial hair. Even the strongest of farm women will be less able than they were in the heavy tasks that they once accomplished with ease. Bones will break more easily, from a simple slip in the kitchen. She may lose teeth as well. Some begin to develop a hump on the back of the neck and to walk with a peering glance. All of these are common parts of a woman aging.

  Less well known is that women may become more prone to fits of melancholy, anger, or foolish impulses. In a vain grasping at lost youth, even the steadiest of women can give way to fripperies and wasteful practices. Usually these storms pass in less than a year, and the woman will resume her dignity and calm as she accepts her own aging.

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  Sometimes, however, these symptoms can precede the downfall of her mind. If she becomes forgetful, calling people by the wrong names, leaving ordinary tasks incomplete, and in extreme cases losing recognition of her own family members, then her family must recognize that she can no longer be considered reliable. Small children should not be entrusted to her care. Forgotten cooking may lead to a kitchen blaze, or the livestock left unwatered and unfed on a hot day. Remonstrances and rebukes will not change these behaviors. Pity is a more appropriate response than anger.

  Let such a woman be given work that is of less consequence. Let her sit by the fire and wind wool or do some such task that will endanger no one. Soon enough, the body’s decline will follow the mind’s absence. The family will experience less grief at her death if she has been treated with patience and kindness during her decline.

  If she becomes exceedingly troublesome, opening doors in the night, wandering off in rainstorms, or exhibiting flashes of fury when she can no longer comprehend her surroundings, then administer to her a strong tea of valerian, one th
at puts her into a manageable state. This remedy may bring peace both to the old woman and to the family weary of caretaking for her.

  On the Aging of the Flesh, Healer Molingal

  Molly’s madness was all the harder to bear in that she remained so pragmatic and sensible in all other parts of her life.

  Molly’s courses had stopped flowing some years ago. She had told me then that she would not ever conceive again. I had tried to comfort her and myself, pointing out that we had a daughter we shared, even if I had missed her childhood. It was foolish to ask more of fate than what we’d been gifted with already. I told her that I accepted there would be no last child for us, and I truly thought she had accepted it as well. We had a full and comfortable life at Withywoods. Hardships that had complicated her early life were a thing of the past, and I had separated myself from the politics and machinations of the court at Buckkeep Castle. We finally had time enough for each other. We could entertain traveling minstrels, afford whatever we desired, and celebrate the passing holidays as lavishly as we wished. We went out riding together, surveying the flocks of sheep, the blossoming orchard, the hayfields, and the vineyards in idle pleasure at such a serene landscape. We returned when we were weary, dined as we would, and slept late when it pleased us.

  Our house steward, Revel, had become so competent as to make me nearly irrelevant. Riddle had chosen him well, even if he had never become the door soldier that Riddle had hoped for. The steward met weekly with Molly to talk of meals and supplies, and he worried me as often as he dared with lists of things he thought needed repairing or updating or, I swear to Eda, changed simply because the man delighted in change. I listened to him, allocated funds, and left it mostly in his capable hands. The estates generated enough income to more than compensate for their upkeep. Still, I watched the accounts carefully and set aside as much as I could for Nettle’s future needs. Several times she rebuked me for spending my own funds on repairs the estate could have paid for. But the crown had allocated me a generous allotment in return for my years of service to Prince Dutiful. Truly, we had plenty and to spare. I had believed that we were in the quiet backwater of our days, a time of peace for both of us. Her collapse at that Winterfest had alarmed me, but I had refused to accept that it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

  In the year after Patience died, Molly grew more pensive. She often seemed distracted and absentminded. Twice she had dizzy spells, and once she spent three days in bed before she felt fully recovered. She lost flesh and slowed down. When the last of her sons decided it was time to make their own ways in the world, she let them go with a smile for them, and quiet tears with me in the evening. “I am happy for them. This is their beginning time. But for me it is an ending, and a difficult one. ” She began to spend more time at quiet pursuits, was very thoughtful of me, and showed more of her gentle side than she had in previous years.

  The next year she recovered a bit. When spring came, she cleaned out the beehives she had neglected, and even went out and captured a new swarm. Her grown children came and went, always full of news of their busy lives, bringing her grandchildren to visit. They were happy to see that their mother had recaptured some of her old energy and spirit. Desire came back to her, to my delight. It was a good year for both of us. I dared to hope that whatever had caused her fainting spells was past. We grew closer, as two trees planted apart from each other finally find that their branches reach and intertwine. It was not that her children had been a barrier between us so much as that she had always given her first thought and time to them. I will shamelessly admit that I enjoyed becoming the center of her world, and did all I could to show her, in every way, that she had always held that place in my life.

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  More recently, she had begun to put on flesh again. Her appetite seemed endless, and as her belly rounded out I teased her a bit. I stopped the day she looked at me and said, almost sadly, “I cannot be ageless as you seem to be, my love. I will grow older and fatter perhaps, and slower. My years of being a girl are long gone, as are my years of childbearing. I am become an old woman, Fitz. I only hope that my body gives out before my mind. I have no desire to linger on past a time when I don’t recall who you are or I am. ”

  So when she announced her “pregnancy” to me, I began to fear that her worst fears and mine were coming true.

  When a few weeks had passed and she persisted in believing she was pregnant, I tried again to make her see reason. We had retired to our bed, and she was in my arms. She had spoken, again, of a child to come. “Molly. How can this be so? You told me yourself …”

  And with a flash of her old temper, she lifted her hand and covered my mouth. “I know what I said. And now I know something different. Fitz, I’m carrying your child. I know how strange that must seem to you, for I myself find it more than passing odd. For months I’ve suspected it, and I kept silent, not wanting you to think me foolish. But it’s true. I felt the baby move inside me. For as many children as I’ve had, it’s not a thing I would mistake. I’m going to have a baby. ”

  “Molly,” I said. I still held her, but I wondered if she was truly with me. I could think of nothing more to say to her. Coward that I am, I did not challenge her. But she sensed my doubt. I felt her stiffen in my arms, and I thought she would thrust herself away from me.

  Then I felt her anger die. She eased out the deep breath she had taken to rebuke me, leaned her head against my shoulder, and spoke. “You think I’m mad, and I suppose I can hardly blame you. For years, I thought I was a dried-up husk, never to bear again. I did my best to accept it. But I’m not. This is the baby we’ve hoped for, our baby, yours and mine, to rear together. And I don’t really care how it’s happened, or if you think I’m mad right now. Because, soon enough, when the child is born, you will know that I was right. And until then, you may think me as mad or as feebleminded as you please, but I intend to be happy. ”

  She relaxed in my arms, and in the darkness I saw her smile at me. I tried to smile back. She spoke gently as she settled into the bed beside me. “You’ve always been such a stubborn man, always sure that you know what is really happening far better than anyone else. And perhaps, a time or two, that has been true. But this is woman’s knowing that I’m talking about now, and in this I know better than you do. ”

  I tried a last time. “When you want a thing so badly for so long, and then it comes time to face that you cannot have it, sometimes—”

  “Sometimes you can’t believe it when it comes to you. Sometimes you’re afraid to believe it. I understand your hesitation. ” She smiled into the darkness, pleased at turning my own words against me.

  “Sometimes wanting what you can’t have can turn your mind,” I said hoarsely, for I felt compelled to say the terrible words aloud.

  She sighed a little sigh, but she smiled as she did so. “Loving you should have turned my mind long ago, then. But it didn’t. So you can be as stubborn as you want. You can even think me mad. But this is what is true. I’m going to have your baby, Fitz. Before winter ends, there’s going to be a baby in this house. So tomorrow you had best have the servants bring the cradle down out of the attic. I want to arrange his room before I get too heavy. ”

  And so Molly stayed in my home and my bed, and yet she left me, departing on a path where I could not follow.

  The very next day she announced her condition to several of the maidservants. She ordered the Sparrow Chamber transformed into a nursery and parlor for herself and her imaginary child. I did not contradict her, but I saw the faces of the women as they left the room. Later I saw two of them, heads together and tongues clucking. But when they looked up and saw me, they stilled their talk and earnestly wished me good day, never meeting my eyes.

  Molly pursued her illusion with energy I thought long lost to her. She made small gowns and little bonnets. She supervised the cleaning of the Sparrow Chamber from top to bottom. The chimney was freshly swept and new drap
eries ordered for the windows. She insisted that I Skill the news to Nettle, and ask her to come and spend the dark months of winter with us, to help us welcome our child.

  And so Nettle came, even though in our Skill-discussions we had agreed that Molly was deceiving herself. She celebrated Winterfest with us, and stayed until the snow started to slump and the bare paths to show. No baby arrived. I thought Molly would be forced to admit her delusion then, but she steadfastly insisted that she had but been mistaken as to how pregnant she was.

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  Spring came into full blossom. In the evenings we spent together she would sometimes drop her needlework and exclaim, “Here! Here, he’s moving, come feel!” But every time I obediently set my hand to her belly, I felt nothing. “He’s stopped,” she would insist, and I would nod gravely. What else could I do?

  “Summer will bring him,” she assured us both, and the little garments she crocheted now were light rather than warm and woolly. As the hot days of summer ticked by to the chirping of grasshoppers, they became another layer of garments in the chest of clothing she had made for her imaginary child.

  Autumn went out in a blaze of glory. Withywoods was lovely as it ever was in fall, with scarlet sprays of alder and golden birch leaves like coins and thin yellow willow leaves in curls, drifting down for the wind to push into deep banks at the edges of the carefully tended grounds. We no longer went out riding together, for Molly insisted she might lose the child if she did so, but we went for walks. I gathered hickory nuts with her, and listened to her plan to move screens into her nursery to make an enclosed area for the cradle. As the days passed, the river that threaded the valley grew swift with rain. Snow arrived and Molly again knit warmer things for our phantom baby, sure now that it would be a winter child, in need of soft blankets and woolly boots and caps. And just as the ice covered and hid the river, so did I strive to conceal from her the growing despair I felt.

  But I am sure she knew it.

  She had courage. Against the current of doubt that all others pressed her way, she swam. She was aware of the talk of the servants. They thought her daft or senile, and wondered that so sensible a woman as she had been could so foolishly assemble a nursery for an imaginary child. She kept her dignity and restraint before them and by that forced them to treat her with respect. But she also withdrew from them. Once she had socialized with the local gentry. Now she planned no dinners and never went out to the crossroads market. She asked no one to weave or sew for her baby.

 
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