Fools assassin, p.14
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       Fools Assassin, p.14

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

  I had believed I would find some sort of serenity in the Mountains. I had witnessed how gracefully they surrendered their King to death and made room for life to continue. But when I departed, I took more envy than serenity with me. They had lost their King after a lifetime of his wisdom. He had died with his dignity and his mind intact. I was losing my beloved Molly, and I knew with dread that it would only get worse, much worse, before the end. I had lost the Fool, the best friend I had ever had, years ago. I thought I had accepted it, become immune to missing him. But the deeper Molly ventured into madness, the more I missed him. Always he had been the one I turned to for counsel. Chade did his best, but he was ever my elder and mentor. When I had visited the Fool’s old home, I had thought only to look at it for a time and touch the stone that once I had had a friend who had known me that well and still loved me.

  Instead I had discovered that perhaps I had not known him as well as I had thought. Had his friendship with Jofron meant so much more to him than what we had shared? A startling thought pricked me. Had she been more to him than a friend or follower of the White Prophet?

  Would you have begrudged him that? That for a time, he lived in the now and had something that was good when all hope had left him?

  I lifted my eyes. I wished with all my heart to see a gray shape flitting through the trees and brush beside the road. But of course I did not. My wolf was gone these many years, gone longer than the Fool had been gone. He lived only in me now, in the way his wolfness could suddenly intrude into my thoughts. At least I still had that of him. It was thin soup.

  “I would not have begrudged him that,” I said aloud, and wondered if I lied so that I need not be ashamed of myself. I shook my head and tried to put my mind into the now. It was a beautiful day, the road was good, and while problems might await me when I returned home, they were not here with me now. And truly, my missing the Fool today was no different from how I had missed him on any of the yesterdays I’d spent without him. So he had sent missives to Jofron and not to me? That had been true for years, apparently. Now I knew of it. That was the only difference.

  I was trying to persuade myself that knowing that small fact made no difference when I heard hoofbeats on the road behind me. Someone was riding a horse at a gallop. Perhaps a messenger. Well, the road was wide enough that he could pass me effortlessly. Nonetheless, I reined my mount more to one side and glanced back to watch him come.

  A black horse. A rider. And in three strides, I knew it was Nettle on Inky. I thought she had gone on with the others, and then realized she must be hurrying to catch up with them after being delayed for some reason. I pulled in my horse and waited for her, fully expecting her to pass me with a wave.

  But as soon as she saw I had halted, she slowed her mount; by the time she reached me Inky had reduced her pace to a trot. “Ho!” Nettle called to her, and Inky halted neatly beside us.

  “I thought you were going to stay another night, and then when I realized you were gone I had to race to catch up with you,” she announced breathlessly.

  “Why aren’t you with the King? Where are your guards?”

  She gave me a look. “I told Dutiful I’d be with you and needed no other guard. He and Chade both agreed. ”

  “Why?”

  She stared at me. “Well, among them, you do have a certain reputation as a very competent assassin. ”

  That silenced me for a moment. They still thought of me that way when I did not? I put my thoughts back in order. “No, I meant, why did you stay to travel with me? Not that I’m not glad to see you, I’m just surprised. ” I added the last as her glance at me darkened. “I had not even realized anyone had noticed that I did not remain with the main party. ”

  She cocked her head at me. “Would you have noticed if I were not there?”

  “Well, of course!”

  “Everyone noticed when you quietly withdrew. Dutiful spoke to me several days ago, saying that you seemed even more morose than one might expect you to be at a funeral and perhaps it was best if you were not left alone. Kettricken was a party to his words, and she added that this visit might have stirred old memories for you. Sad ones. So. Here I am. ”

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  And indeed, there she was. I was almost annoyed at her for spoiling my perfectly good sulk. And that was when I realized that was what I had been doing. I’d been sulking because the Fool had sent letters to Jofron and not to me. And like a child, I’d been testing the people who loved me, pulling away from them almost for the sole reason of seeing if anyone would come after me.

  And she had. I felt thwarted in my petulance, and as foolish as I knew that to be, it still stung when Nettle laughed at me. “I wish you could see the look on your face!” she exclaimed. “Come. Will it be so terrible that after all these years, you and I finally will have a few days and nights of being able to talk to each other, without disasters or small boys interrupting us?”

  “It would be good,” I conceded, and just that simply my mood lifted. And our homeward journey together began.

  I had never traveled in such indulgence. I had brought few supplies, thinking I would live rough on the way home. Nettle was likewise traveling light, save for a wallet full of silvers. The first time I proposed that if we were going to camp for the night, we should begin to look for a likely place, she stood up in her stirrups, looked all around, and then pointed to smoke rising. “That’s a house at the least, and more likely a village with an inn, however humble. And that is where I intend to stop tonight, and if there is a hot bath to be had, it will be mine. And a good meal!”

  And she was right. There were all three of those things, in fact, and she put silver out for me as well as herself, saying, “Chade told me not to let you do anything to punish yourself for being sad. ”

  For a few quiet moments, I handled her words, trying to see if they truly applied to me. They didn’t, I was sure, but I could think of no defense. She cleared her throat. “Let’s talk about Hap, shall we? Did you know that there is rumor that despite being a minstrel, and a wandering one at that, he has a sweetheart at Daratkeep, and he is true to her? She is a weaver in the town there. ”

  I had not known that, or much of the other gossip she shared with me. That evening, although there were several other minor nobles occupying the same inn, Nettle kept company with me. And we remained long by the hearth fire in the central room after the others had sought their beds. From her, I learned that Buckkeep politics were as tangled and the intimate royal gossip as thorny as ever. She had quarreled with King Dutiful, for she feared for the safety of the adolescent Princes, too often off to the Out Islands with their mother. He had dared to tell her it was none of her business, and she had replied that if it was his business that she could not wed because he consistently exposed his heirs to danger, then she had a right to add her thoughts on it. Queen Elliania had recently suffered a miscarriage: It had been a girl child, the child she had dreamed of; it was a terrible loss as well as a bad omen to her mothershouse. When they had departed so hastily for Buckkeep, it was so that Elliania could take the Princes for yet another long visit to her homeland. Some of the dukes had begun to grumble about how often the lads were away. King Dutiful was caught between his dukes and his Queen, and seemed able to find no compromise.

  When I asked after Riddle, Nettle said he was well the last time she had seen him and then decisively steered our conversation away from that. She seemed to have given up all hope of ever gaining King Dutiful’s permission to wed, and yet I had never seen her evince interest in another man. I longed to know what was in her heart, and wished she were more inclined to confide in me as she once had in her mother.

  Instead she turned our talk to other problems brewing along our border.

  Dragons were ranging over Chalced, preying where they pleased, and they had begun sometimes to cross the border and ravage the herds of Shoaks and even Farrow. The Six Duchies folk expected the Skill-
coterie of the King to turn back the dragons or at least negotiate with them. But the concepts of diplomacy and compromise were laughable to dragons. If dragons laughed, which both Nettle and I doubted.

  We pondered if one could negotiate with dragons, and what the repercussions would be of slaying a dragon, and if paying tribute to dragons with slaughter herds was cowardly or simply pragmatic.

  Some of her news was not political but of family. Swift and Web had recently visited Buckkeep. Swift’s bird partner was healthy and strong. But Web’s gull was so poorly that Web had taken a room in Buckkeep Town that overlooked the water. The bird mostly lived on his windowsill; he fed her, for she flew little now. The end was coming and they were both awaiting it. While Nettle herself was not Witted, through me and her brother Swift she understood what is was to lose a Wit-partner.

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  But it was not only gossip we shared. We talked of food, and music we enjoyed, and which old tales were our favorites. She told me stories of her childhood, mostly of the mischief she and her brothers had perpetrated. In turn, I spoke of my days as a boy in Buckkeep, and how different both castle and town had been then. Burrich figured much in all our tales.

  On our last evening together, before we left the River Road to follow the narrower road that led to Withywoods, she asked me about Lord Golden. Had he truly once been a jester for King Shrewd? Yes, he had. And he and I had been … very close? “Nettle,” I said, as she rode looking straight ahead. I waited until she turned to look at me. Her tanned cheeks were a bit more flushed than usual. “I loved that man as I have loved no one else. I do not say I loved him more than I love your mother. But that the way I loved him was different. If you have heard there was anything improper in our bond, there was not. That was not what we were to each other. What we had went beyond that. ”

  She did not meet my eyes, but she nodded. “And what became of him?” she asked in a softer voice.

  “I do not know. He left Buckkeep while I was still lost in the stones. I never heard from him again. ”

  I think my voice told her far more than my words did. “I am so sorry, Da,” she said quietly.

  Did she know that it was the first time she had honored me with that title? I held a very careful silence, savoring the moment. And then we crested a slight rise, and the village of Withy was before us, cupped in a gentle valley beside a river. And I knew we would reach Withywoods before the afternoon was old. I found I suddenly regretted how soon our journey together must end. Even more, I dreaded what she would think of her mother and how far her delusions had carried her away from us.

  And yet the visit began well. When we arrived, Molly hugged me warmly and then turned delightedly to her eldest child. She had not expected me to return so soon, and had not expected to see Nettle at all. We had arrived shortly after noon and were both ravenous. All three of us retired to the kitchen where we merrily dismayed the household staff by insisting on raiding the pantry for a simple feast of bread, cheese, sausage, and ale instead of waiting for them to prepare something more elaborate for us. When Cook Nutmeg put her foot down and chased us out of her kitchen, we picnicked at one end of the great dining table. We told Molly all about our journey, the simple but moving ceremonies that had preceded the King’s interment, and Kettricken’s decision to stay for a time in the Mountains. And as there is from any journey, no matter how solemn the destination, there were humorous stories to tell that set us all laughing.

  Molly had stories of her own to share with us. Some goats had managed to get into the vineyards and had done damage to some of the oldest vines there. They would recover, but most of this year’s grapes from that section of the vineyard were lost. We’d had several major incursions of wild pigs into the hayfield; the major damage they did was trampling the hay to where it was almost impossible to harvest it. Lozum from the village had brought his dogs and gone after them. He’d killed one big boar, but one of his dogs had been badly ripped in the process. I sighed to myself. I was sure that would be one of the first problems I’d have to tackle. I’d never enjoyed boar hunts, but it would be necessary now. And Tallman would once again renew his plea for hounds of our own.

  And somehow, while I was silently woolgathering on boars and dogs and hunting, the topic changed, and then Molly was tugging at my sleeve and asking me, “Don’t you want to see what we’ve done?”

  “Of course,” I replied, and arose from the pitiful remains of our haphazard meal to follow my wife and my daughter.

  My heart sank when I realized she was leading us to her nursery. Nettle glanced back at me over her shoulder, but I kept my expression bland. Nettle had not seen the room since Molly had taken it over. And when she opened the door, I realized I hadn’t, either.

  The room had originally been a parlor intended for greeting important guests. In my absence it had become a carefully appointed nursery, rich with every luxury that a gravid woman could wish for her child to come.

  The cradle in the center of it was of fine mellow oak, cunningly fashioned so that if one stepped on a lever, it would gently rock the child. A carved Farseer buck watched over the head of the cradle. I believe Lady Patience had had it built in her early days at Withywoods, when she still hoped to conceive a child. It had waited, empty, for decades. Now the cradle was heaped with soft bedding, and netted with lace so that no insect might sting the occupant. The low couch now boasted fat cushions where a mother might recline to feed her child, and there were thick rugs underfoot. The deep windows looked out onto a garden cloaked in the first fall of autumn leaves. The thick glass was curtained first with lace, and then translucent silk, and finally with a tightly woven curtain that would keep out both bright sunlight and cold. There was a painted glass enclosure Molly could put around the lamp to dim its light as well. Behind a fanciful screen of flowers and bees wrought in iron, the low fire danced for her in the large hearth.

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  She smiled at our amazement. “Isn’t it lovely?” she asked quietly.

  “It’s … beautiful. Such a peaceful room,” Nettle managed to say.

  I tried to find my tongue. I’d been holding Molly’s fancy at a distance; now I had stepped into her delusion. The stupid wanting that I thought I had smothered roared up like a fire through charred twigs. A baby. How sweet would it have been, to have our own little baby here, where I could watch him grow, where I could see Molly be mother to our child? I feigned a cough and rubbed my face. I walked to the lamp and examined the painted flowers on the screen with a scrutiny they didn’t merit.

  Molly went on talking to Nettle. “When Patience was alive, she showed me this cradle. It was up in the attic. She’d had it made in the years when she and Chivalry lived here, when she dreamed it was still possible she might conceive. All those years, it has waited. It was far too heavy for me to move by myself, but I called Revel and showed it to him. And he had it carried down here for me, and once the wood was polished it was such a lovely thing that we decided we really needed to make the whole room as fine a nursery as the cradle deserved.

  “Oh, and come here, just look at these trunks. Revel found them in a different attic, but isn’t it wonderful how close a match the wood is? He thought that perhaps the oak was grown right here at Withywoods, which could explain why the color is so close to the cradle. This one has blankets, some of wool for winter months and some lighter, for the spring. And this entire trunk, I’m shocked to say, is all clothing for the baby. I had not realized how much I’d actually sewn for him until Revel suggested we put it all in one place. There are different sizes, of course. I wasn’t as foolish as that, as to make all the little gowns for a newborn. ”

  And on. The words poured out of Molly, as if she had longed for months to be able to speak openly about her hopes for her child. And Nettle looked at her mother and smiled and nodded. They sat on the couch and took clothing from the trunk and laid it out to look at it. I stood and watched them. I think that
for a moment, Nettle was caught in her mother’s dream. Or perhaps, I thought to myself, it was the same longing they shared, Molly for a child she was long past bearing and Nettle for a child she was forbidden to bear. I saw Nettle take up a little gown and lay it across her breast as she exclaimed, “So tiny! I had forgotten how small babies were; it has been years since Hearth was born. ”

  “Oh, Hearth, he was almost the biggest of my babies. Only Just was larger. The things I’d made for Hearth, he outgrew within a few months. ”

  “I remember that!” Nettle exclaimed. “His little feet hung out the bottoms of his gown and we’d cover him, only to have him kick all his blankets off a moment later. ”

  Purest envy choked me. They were gone, both of them, back to a time when I hadn’t existed in either of their lives, back to a cozy, noisy home full of children. I did not begrudge Molly her years of marriage to Burrich. He had been a good man for her. But this was like a slow knife turning in me, to watch them recollect an experience I would never have. I stared at them, the outsider again. And then, as if a curtain had lifted or a door opened, I realized that I excluded myself. I went over and sat down beside them. Molly lifted a tiny pair of knit boots from the chest. She smiled and offered them to me. Without a word, I took them. They scarcely filled the palm of my hand. I tried to imagine the tiny foot that would go into one, and could not.

  I looked over at Molly. There were lines at the corners of her eyes and lines framing her mouth. Her rosy full lips had faded to pale-pink arcs. I suddenly saw her not as Molly, but as a woman of some fifty-odd years. Her lush, dark hair had thinned, and gray streaked it. But she looked at me with such hope and love, her head turned just slightly to one side. And I saw something else in her eyes, something that had not been there ten years ago. Confidence in my love. The wariness that had tinged our relationship was gone, worn to nothing by our last decade together. She finally knew that I loved her, that I would always put her first. I had finally earned her trust.

 

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