Fools assassin, p.15
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       Fools Assassin, p.15

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

  I looked down at the little booties in my hand and slipped my two fingers inside them. I stood them up on my palm. I danced them a couple of steps on my hand. She reached to still my fingers, and slid the soft gray boots away. “Soon enough,” she told me, and leaned against me. Nettle looked up at me and such gratitude shone in her eyes that I felt I had suddenly won a battle I had not even known I was fighting.

  I cleared my throat and managed to speak without huskiness. “I want a hot cup of tea,” I told them, and Molly sat up, exclaiming, “You know, that would be exactly what I want right now, myself. ”

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  And despite our weariness from travel, the afternoon passed pleasantly. Much later that night, we shared a dinner that met Cook Nutmeg’s standards, and a jot of brandy that exceeded mine. We had retired to the estate study, where Nettle had refused to look at my careful bookkeeping, saying she was certain all was well. Nettle had insisted she must leave in the morning. Molly had tried to dissuade her to no avail. I was nearly dozing in a chair by the fire when Nettle spoke softly from her corner of a settee. “Seeing it is much worse than hearing about it. ” She sighed heavily. “It’s real. We are losing her. ”

  I opened my eyes. Molly had left us, saying she wished to see if there was any of that pale sharp cheese left in the larder, as she suddenly fancied it. She’d put her desire for it down to her pregnancy and, Molly-like, had disdained the idea of ringing for a servant at such a late hour. She was beloved by our servants simply because she spared them such thoughtless abuse.

  I looked at the place where Molly had been sitting. The imprint of her body was still on the cushions, and her scent lingered in the air. I spoke softly. “She’s slowly sliding away from me. Today was not too bad. There are days when she is so focused on this ‘baby’ that she speaks of nothing else. ”

  “She makes it seem so real,” Nettle said, her words faltering away between wistfulness and dread.

  “I know. It’s hard. I’ve tried to tell her it’s impossible. And when I do, I feel like I’m being cruel. But today, playing along … that feels crueler now. As if I’ve given up on her. ” I stared at the dying fire. “I’ve had to ask the maidservants to indulge her. I’d seen them rolling their eyes after she’d passed by. I rebuked them for it, but I think it only—”

  Angry sparks sprang in Nettle’s eyes. She sat up straight. “I don’t care if my mother is mad as a hatter! They must be made to treat her with respect. You can’t indulge them in any smirking ‘tolerance’! She is my mother and your wife. Lady Molly!”

  “I’m not sure how to deal with it without making it worse,” I confided to her. “Molly has always taken care of the running of the household. If I step in and start rebuking the servants, she may resent me usurping her authority. And what can I say to them? We both know your mother’s not pregnant! How long must I order them to maintain this pretense? Where does it end? With the birth of an imaginary child?”

  Nettle’s face went pale at my words. For a moment the planes of her face were white and stark like the frozen flanks of a mountain under snow. Then she abruptly dropped her face into her hands. I looked at the pale parting in her gleaming dark hair. She spoke through her fingers. “We’re losing her, Tom. It’s only going to get worse. We know that. What will you do when she no longer knows you? When she cannot take care of herself anymore? What will become of her?”

  She lifted her face. Silent tears gleamed in streaks down her cheek.

  I crossed the room and took her hand. “I promise this. I will take care of her. Always. I will love her. Always. ” I steeled my will. “And I will speak to the servants privately, and tell them that regardless of how long they have worked here, if they value their positions, they will treat Lady Molly as befits the mistress of this household. No matter what they may think of her requests. ”

  Nettle sniffed and drew her hands free of mine, to wipe the backs of her wrists across her eyes. “I know I’m not a child anymore. But just the thought of losing her …”

  She let her words trail away, her voice stilling before she uttered the words we both knew welled up in her. She still mourned Burrich, the only real father she’d ever known. She did not want to lose her mother as well, and even worse would be to have Molly look at her and not know her.

  “I’ll take care of her,” I promised again. And you, I thought to myself. And wondered if she would ever let me step into that role. “Even if it means pretending for her that I believe she has a child growing inside her. Though it makes me feel false to her when I do so. Today …” I faltered, guilt welling up in me. I had behaved as if Molly were truly pregnant, indulging her as if she were a fanciful child. Or a madwoman.

  “You were being kind,” Nettle said quietly. “I know my mother. You won’t convince her to give up this delusion. Her mind is unsettled. You may as well be—”

  Molly set down the tray with a solid clack on the table. We both jumped guiltily. Molly stared at me, her eyes black. She folded her lips tightly, and at first I thought she would yet again ignore our disagreement. But Nettle was right. She stood her ground and spoke plainly. “You both think me mad. Well. This is fine, then. But I will tell you plainly that I feel the child move within me and my breasts have begun to swell with milk. The time is not far when you will both have to beg my pardon. ”

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  Nettle and I, caught in our secret worrying, sat dumbstruck. Nettle had no reply for her mother, and Molly turned and stalked from the room. We looked at each other, guilt-stricken. But neither of us went after her; we soon sought our beds. I had looked forward, on my ride home, to a sweet reunion with my wife and a shared night. Instead Molly had sought out the couch in her nursery. I went alone to our bedchamber, and it seemed a cold and empty place.

  The very next day, Nettle left before noon to return to Buckkeep Castle. She said she had been long away from her Skill-apprentices and that there would be all sorts of neglected work awaiting her. I didn’t doubt her, but neither did I believe that was her prime reason for leaving. Molly hugged her farewell, and a stranger might have thought all was well between mother and daughter. But Molly had not mentioned the baby since she had left us the evening before, nor asked if Nettle would return for the birth.

  And in the days that followed, she no longer spoke of her phantom child to me. We ate breakfast together; we spoke of the matters of the estate, and over dinner shared the events of our days. And each of us slept alone. Or, in my case, did not sleep. I did more translation work for Chade in the late-night hours than I had in the previous six months. Ten days after the incident, one late evening, I made bold to seek her in her nursery. The door was closed. I stood before it for several long moments before deciding that I should knock rather than walk in. I tapped, waited, and then knocked more loudly.

  “Who is it?” Molly’s voice sounded surprised.

  “It’s me. ” I opened the door a crack. “May I come in?”

  “I never said you couldn’t,” she replied tartly. The words stung, and yet a smile tugged at my face. I turned slightly away from her lest she see it. Now, there was the Molly Redskirts I knew.

  “That’s true,” I said quietly. “But I know that I hurt your feelings, badly, and if you wanted to avoid me for a time, I thought I should not intrude. ”

  “‘Not intrude,’” she said quietly. “Fitz, are you certain you are not the one who has been avoiding me? For how many years have I wakened at night to find your side of the bed cool and empty? Slipping out of our bed in the dead of night to hide away in your dusty little scroll hole, scribbling until your fingers are all ink?”

  I bowed my head to that. I had not realized she was aware of those times. I had been tempted to point out that she had left our bed for this nursery. I put that barb down. It was not time to begin a battle. I was inside her door now, and felt like the wolf the first time he had ventured inside a house. I wasn’t sure whe
re I should stand or if I could sit. She sighed, and sat up on the divan where she had been reclining. She was in her nightrobe, but she moved a half-finished bit of embroidery to make room for me. “I suppose I do spend too many hours there,” I apologized. I sat down beside her. Her scent reached me and I suddenly said, “Whenever I smell you, I always want to kiss you. ”

  She stared at me in astonishment, laughed, and then said sadly, “Of late, I wondered if you even wanted to be near me at all anymore. Old and wrinkly, and now you think me mad …”

  I gathered her close before she could say more. I kissed her, the top of her head, the side of her face, and then her mouth. “I will always want to kiss you,” I said into her hair.

  “You don’t believe I’m pregnant. ”

  I didn’t let go of her. “You’ve been telling me for over two years that you are pregnant. What am I to think, Molly?”

  “I don’t understand it myself,” she said. “But all I can tell you is that I must have somehow been mistaken at first. I must have thought I was pregnant before I was. Perhaps I knew, somehow, that I was going to be pregnant. ” She leaned her brow on my shoulder. “It has been hard for me, to have you gone for days at a time. I know that the maidservants giggle about me behind their hands. They know so little of us. They think it scandalous for a man as young and hale as you to be married to an old woman like me. They gossip that you married me for my money and position! They make me feel an old fool. Who do I have who understands who we are and what we have been to each other? Only you. And when you abandon me, when you think me as foolish as they do, then … Oh, Fitz, I know it’s hard for you to believe it. But I have believed much harder things for your sake and with only your word to go on. ”

  I felt as if the whole world went still around me. Yes. She had. I’d never stopped to see it from that perspective. I bent my head and kissed her salt-teared cheek. “You have. ” I took a breath. “I will believe you, Molly. ”

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  She choked on a laugh. “Oh, Fitz. Please. No, you won’t. But I’m going to ask you to pretend that you do. Only when we are in here, together. And in return, when I am not in this room, I will pretend I am not pregnant, as best I can. ” She shook her head, her hair rubbing against my cheek. “I am sure that will be much easier for the servants. Except for Revel. Our steward seemed absolutely delighted to help me construct this nest. ”

  I thought of Revel, tall, almost gaunt in his thinness, always grave and correct with me. “Was he?” It didn’t seem believable.

  “Oh, yes. He found the screens with the pansies on them, and had them cleaned before he even told me. I came in here one day, and they were set up around the cradle. And the lace over it, to keep insects away. ”

  Pansies. From Patience, I knew they were sometimes called heart’s ease. I owed Revel.

  She stood, pulling herself out of my arms. She stepped away from me, and I looked at her. Her long nightgown was scarcely revealing, and she had always been a woman of curves. She went to the hearth, and I saw that there was a tray set on a stand with tea things on it. I studied her profile. She looked little different to me than she had five years ago. Surely if she were pregnant, I’d be able to tell. I measured the slight swell of her belly, her ample hips and generous breasts, and suddenly I was not thinking of babies at all.

  She glanced over at me, asking, teapot in hand, “Would you like some?” Then, as I stared at her, her eyes slowly widened and a wicked smile curved her mouth. It was a smile worthy of a naked girl wearing only a holly crown.

  “Oh, indeed I would,” I replied. As I rose and went to her, she came to meet me. We were gentle and slow with each other, and that night we both slept in her bed in the nursery.

  Winter found Withywoods the next day, with a fall of wet snow that brought down the remaining leaves on the birches and lined their graceful branches with white. The stillness that the first snowfall always brings settled like a mantle over the land. Within Withywoods Manor it suddenly seemed a time for wood fires and hot soup and fresh bread at noon. I had returned to the manor’s study and a clear-flamed fire of applewood was crackling on the hearth when there was a tap at the door.

  “Yes,” I called, looking up from a missive from Web.

  The door opened slowly and Revel entered. His fitted coat hugged his wide shoulders and narrow waist. He was always impeccably attired and correct in his manners. Decades younger than me, he had a bearing that made me feel like a boy with dirty hands and a stained tunic when he looked down at me. “You sent for me, Holder Badgerlock?”

  “I did. ” I set Web’s letter to one side. “I wanted to speak to you about Lady Molly’s chamber. The screens with the pansies on them …”

  The expectation of my disapproval flickered in his eyes. He drew himself up to his full height and looked down on me with the dignity that a truly good house steward always radiates. “Sir. If you please. The screens have not seen use in decades, and yet they are lovely things worthy of display. I know I acted without direct authorization, but Lady Molly has seemed … dispirited of late. Before you departed, you had directed me to see to her needs. I did. As for the cradle, I came upon her sitting at the top of the stairs, all out of breath and near weeping. It is a heavy cradle, sir, and yet she had managed to move it that far on her own. I felt shamed that she had not come to me and simply told me what she wished me to do. And so, with the screens, I tried to anticipate what she would wish. She has always been kind to me. ”

  He stopped talking. Plainly he felt there was much more he could have said to someone as thick-witted and rock-hearted as I apparently was. I met his gaze and then spoke quietly.

  “As she has to me. I am grateful for your service to her and to the estate. Thank you. ” I had called him in to tell him that I had decided to double his wages. While the gesture still seemed correct, speaking aloud of it suddenly seemed a mercenary thing to do. He had not done this for money. He had repaid a kindness with a kindness. He would discover our largesse when he received his month’s wages, and he would know what it was for. But money was not what would matter to this man. I spoke quietly. “You’re an excellent steward, Revel, and we value you highly. I want to be sure you know that. ”

  He inclined his head slightly. It wasn’t a bow, it was an acceptance. “I do now, sir. ”

  “Thank you, Revel. ”

  “I’m sure you’re welcome, sir. ”

  And he left the room as quietly as he’d come.

  Winter deepened around Withywoods. The days shortened, the snow piled up, and the nights were black and frosty. Molly and I had made our truce and we both kept it. It made life simpler for both of us. I truly think peace was what we most desired. Most early evenings I spent in the room I had come to think of as Molly’s study. She tended to fall asleep there, and I would cover her well and then creep away to my own disorderly den and my work there. So it was very late one night as we were drawing close to midwinter. Chade had sent me a very intriguing set of scrolls, in a language that was almost Outislander. There were three illustrations in them, and they seemed to be of standing stones, with small notations at the side that could have been glyphs. This was the sort of puzzle that I dreaded, for I did not have enough clues to solve it and yet I could not leave it alone. I was working on the scrolls, creating a page beside the first one that duplicated the faded illustrations, substituting the words I could translate and leaving room for the others. I was trying to gain a general idea of what the scroll was about, but was totally mystified by the apparent use of the word “porridge” in its title.

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  It was late, and I believed myself the only one awake in the house. Wet snow was falling thickly outside, and I had closed the dusty curtains against the night. When the wind blew, the snow splatted against the glass. I was half-wondering if we’d be snowed in by morning and if the wet snow would put an ice glaze on the grapevines. I looked up abrupt
ly, my Wit-sense stirred, and a moment later the door eased open. Molly peered around.

  “What is it?” I asked, sudden anxiety making my query sharper than I intended. I could not recall the last time she had sought me out in my study.

  She clutched at the door frame. For an instant she was quiet, and I feared I had injured her feelings. Then she spoke through a held breath. “I’m here to break my word. ”

  “What?”

  “I can’t pretend I’m not pregnant anymore. Fitz, I’m in labor. The baby will come tonight. ” A faint smile framed her gritted teeth. An instant later she took a sudden deep breath.

  I stared at her.

  “I’m certain,” she replied to my unasked question. “I felt the first pangs hours ago. I’ve waited until they were strong and closer together, to be sure. The baby is coming, Fitz. ” She waited.

  “Could it be bad food?” I asked her. “The sauce on the mutton at dinner seemed very spicy to me and perhaps—”

  “I’m not sick. And I didn’t eat dinner, not that you noticed. I’m in labor. Eda bless us all, Fitz, I’ve had seven children that were born alive, and two miscarriages in my life. Don’t you think I know what I’m feeling now?”

  I stood slowly. There was a faint sheen of sweat on her face. A fever, leading her delusion to deepen? “I’ll send for Tavia. She can go for the healer while I help you lie down. ”

  “No. ” She spoke the word bluntly. “I’m not sick. So I don’t need a healer. And the midwife won’t come. She and Tavia think me just as daft as you do. ” She took a breath and held it. She closed her eyes, folded her lips, and her grip on the door’s edge grew white-knuckled. After a long moment, she spoke. “I can do this alone. Burrich always helped me with my other births, but I can do this alone if I must. ”

  Did she mean that to sting as much as it did? “Let me help you to your nursery,” I said. I half-expected her to swat at me as I took her arm, but instead she leaned on me heavily. We walked slowly through the darkened halls, pausing three times, and I thought I might have to carry her. Something was deeply wrong with her. The wolf in me, so long dormant, was alarmed at her scent. “Have you vomited?” I asked her. And “Do you have fever?” She didn’t answer either question.

 

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