Fools assassin, p.16
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       Fools Assassin, p.16

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

  It took forever to reach her chamber. Inside, a fire burned on the hearth. It was almost too warm in the room. When she sat down on the low couch and groaned with the cramp that took her, I said quietly, “I can bring you a tea that would purge you. I really think—”

  “I labor to bring forth your child. If you won’t be any help, then leave me,” she told me savagely.

  I couldn’t stand it. I rose from my seat beside her, turned, and walked as far as the door. There I halted. I will never know why. Perhaps I felt that joining her in madness would be better than letting her go there alone. Or perhaps that joining her would be better than remaining in a rational world without her. I changed my voice, letting my love rule it. “Molly. Tell me what you need. I’ve never done this. What should I bring, what should I do? Should I call some of the women to attend you?”

  Her muscles were tight when I asked; it was a moment before she answered. “No. I want none of them. They would only titter and simper at the foolish old woman. So only you would I have here. If you can find the will to believe me. At least within this room, Fitz, keep your word to me. Pretend to believe me. ” Her breath caught again and she leaned forward over her belly. A time passed, and then she told me, “Bring a basin of warmed water to bathe the child when he comes. And a clean cloth to dry him. A bit of twine to tie the cord tight. A pitcher of cool water and a cup for me. ” And then she curled forward again, and let out a long, low moan.

  And so I went. In the kitchen I filled a pitcher with hot water from the simmering kettle always kept near the hearth. Around me was the comfortable, familiar clutter of the kitchen at night. The fire muttered to itself, crocks of dough were slowly rising for the next day’s bread; a pot of brown beef stock gave off its fragrant aroma near the back of the hearth. I found a basin and filled a large mug with cold water. I took a clean cloth from a stack there, found a big tray to put it all on, and loaded it. I stood for a long moment, breathing in the serenity, the sanity of an organized kitchen in a quiet moment. “Oh, Molly,” I said to the silent walls. Then I bared my courage as if I were drawing a heavy blade, hefted the tray, balanced it, and set off through the quiet halls of Withywoods.

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  I shouldered the unlatched door open, set the tray down on a table, and walked around to the divan by the fireside. The room smelled of sweat. Molly was silent; her head drooped forward on her chest. After all this, had she fallen asleep sitting in front of the fire?

  She sat spraddled on the edge of the couch, her nightrobe hiked to her hips. Her cupped hands were between her knees and the tiniest child I had ever seen rested in her hands. I staggered, nearly fell, and then dropped to my knees, staring. Such a small being, streaked with blood and wax. The baby’s eyes were open. My voice shook as I asked, “It’s a baby?”

  She lifted her eyes and stared at me with the tolerance of years. Stupid, beloved man. Even in her exhaustion, she smiled at me. Triumph in that look and love I did not deserve. No rebuke for my doubts. She spoke softly. “Yes. She’s our baby. Here at last. ” The tiny thing was a deep red, with a pale thick umbilical cord coiling from her belly to the afterbirth on the floor at Molly’s feet.

  I choked as I tried to take in a breath. Utter joy collided with deepest shame. I had doubted her. I didn’t deserve this miracle. Life would punish me, I was sure of it. My voice sounded childish to me as I begged, against all odds, “Is she alive?”

  Molly sounded exhausted. “She is, but so small. Half the size of a barn cat! Oh, Fitz, how can this be? So long a pregnancy and so small a child. ” She took in a shaky breath, refusing tears for practicality. “Bring me the basin of warm water and the soft towels. And something to cut the cord. ”

  “Right away!”

  I brought them to her and set them at her feet. The baby still rested in her mother’s hands, looking up at her. Molly ran her fingertip across the baby’s small mouth, patted her cheek. “You’re so still,” she said, and her fingers moved to the child’s chest. I saw her press them and feel for a heart beating there. Molly looked up at me. “Like a bird’s heart,” she said.

  The infant stirred slightly and took a deeper breath. Suddenly she shivered and Molly held her close to her breast. She looked into the little face as she said, “So tiny. We’ve waited for you so long, we’ve waited years. And now you’ve come, and I doubt that you will stay a day. ”

  I wanted to reassure her, but I knew she was right. Molly had begun to tremble with the fatigue of her labor. Still, she was the one to tie the cord and cut it. She leaned down to test the warm water, and then to slide the baby into it. Gently her hands smoothed the blood away. The tiny skull was coated with downy pale hair.

  “Her eyes are blue!”

  “All babies are born with blue eyes. They’ll change. ” Molly lifted the baby and, with an easy knack I envied, transferred her from towel to soft white blanket and swaddled her into a tidy bundle, smooth as a moth’s cocoon. Molly looked at up me and shook her head at my numb astonishment. “Take her, please. I need to see to myself now. ”

  “I might drop her!” I was terrified.

  Molly’s solemn gaze met mine. “Take her. Do not put her down. I do not know how long we may have her. Hold her while you can. If she leaves us, she will leave as we are holding her, not alone in her cradle. ”

  Her words made the tears course down my cheeks. But I obeyed her, completely meek now in the knowledge of how wrong I had been. I moved to the end of her couch, sat down, and held my new little daughter and looked into her face. Her blue eyes met mine unflinchingly. She did not wail, as I had always believed newborns did. She was utterly calm. And so very still.

  I met her gaze; she looked to me as if she knew the answer to every mystery. I leaned in closer, taking in her scent, and the wolf in me leapt high. Mine. Suddenly she was obviously mine in every way. My cub, to protect. Mine. From this moment, I would die rather than see harm come to her. Mine. The Wit told me that this little spark of life burned strong. Tiny as she was, she would never be prey.

  I glanced at Molly. She was washing herself. I set a forefinger to my child’s brow and very carefully extended my Skill toward her. I was not certain of the morality of what I did but I pushed away all compunction about it. She was too young to ask her permission. I knew clearly what I intended. If I found something wrong with the baby, something physical, I would do whatever I could to mend it, even though it might task my abilities to their limit and might use all the small reserves of strength she had. The child was calm, her blue eyes meeting mine as I probed her. Such a tiny body. I felt her heart pumping her blood, her lungs taking in air. She was tiny, but if there was aught else wrong with her, I could not find it. She squirmed feebly, puckering her tiny mouth as if she would cry, but I was firm.

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  A shadow fell between us. I looked up guiltily. Molly stood over us in a clean, soft robe, already reaching to take the child back from me. As I handed her over, I said quietly, “She’s perfect, Molly. Inside and out. ” The baby settled into her embrace, visibly relaxing. Had she resented my Skill-probe? I looked aside from Molly, ashamed of my ignorance as I asked, “Is she truly so small for a newborn?”

  Her words struck me like arrows. “My love, I’ve never seen a baby this small survive more than an hour. ” Molly had opened the baby’s wrappings and was looking at her. She unfolded the tiny hand and looked at her fingers, stroked the small skull, and then looked at her little red feet. She counted each toe. “But maybe … she didn’t come early, that’s for certain! And every part of her is formed well; she even has hair, though it’s so blond you can barely see it. All my other children were dark. Even Nettle. ”

  The last she added as if she needed to remind me that I had fathered her first daughter, even if I had not been there to see her born or watch her grow. I needed no such reminder. I nodded and reached out to touch the baby’s fist. She pulled it in close to her
chest and closed her eyes. I spoke quietly. “My mother was Mountain-born,” I said quietly. “Both she and my grandmother were fair-haired and blue-eyed. Many of the folk from that region are so. Perhaps I’ve passed it on to our child. ”

  Molly looked startled. I thought it was because I seldom spoke of the mother who had given me up when I was a small child. I no longer denied to myself that I could recall her. She’d kept her fair hair bound back in a single long braid down her back. Her eyes had been blue, her cheekbones high, and her chin narrow. There had never been any rings on her hands. “Keppet,” she had named me. When I thought of that distant Mountain childhood, it seemed more like a tale I had heard than something that belonged to me.

  Molly broke into my wandering thoughts. “You say she is perfect, ‘inside and out. ’ Did you use the Skill-magic to know that?”

  I looked at her, guiltily aware of how uneasy that magic made her. I lowered my eyes and admitted, “Not only the Skill but the Wit tells me that we have a very small but otherwise healthy child here, my love. The Wit tells me the life spark in her is strong and bright. Tiny as she is, I find no reason that she will not live and thrive. And grow. ” A light kindled in Molly’s face as if I had given her a treasure of inestimable value. I leaned over and traced a soft circle on the babe’s cheek. She startled me by turning her face toward my touch, her little lips puckering.

  “She’s hungry,” Molly said and laughed aloud, weakly but gratefully. She arranged herself in a chair, opened her robe, and set the babe to her bared breast. I stared at what I had never seen before, moved far past tears. I edged closer to her, knelt beside them on the floor, carefully set my arm around my wife, and looked down at the suckling infant.

  “I’ve been such an idiot,” I said. “I should have believed you from the start. ”

  “Yes. You should have,” she agreed, and then she assured me, “No harm done,” and leaned into my embrace. And that quarrel was ever done between us.

  Chapter Six

  The Secret Child

  The hunger for using the Skill does not diminish with use or with age. Curiosity disguises itself as a legitimate desire for wisdom and adds its temptation. Only discipline can keep it in check. For this reason, it is best that members of a coterie are kept in proximity to one another throughout the span of their lives, so that they can reinforce with one another the proper use of the Skill. It is also vital that journeymen coteries monitor the apprentices and that Masters monitor both journeymen and apprentice coteries. With your Solos, be most vigilant of all. Often Solos exhibit an adventurous and arrogant nature, and this is what keeps them from successfully joining a coterie. It is absolutely essential that the Skillmaster be vigilant in overseeing every Solo. If a Solo becomes secretive and excessively private in his habits, it may be necessary for all Masters of the Skill to convene and discuss containing his magic, lest it gain control of the Solo and he hurt himself or others.

  But who shall watch over the shepherd?

  This question presents the problem neatly. The Skillmaster, at his elevated level, can be disciplined only by himself. This is why the position must never be political, nor granted as an honor, but only bestowed to the most learned, the most powerful, and the most disciplined of Skill-users. When we convened to discuss the abuse of the Skill, the horrific damage inflicted on Cowshell Village, and the fall of Skillmaster Clarity, we had to confront what the politicization of this title had done to us all. Unchecked, Skillmaster Clarity entered dreams, influenced thinking, passed judgment on those he considered evil, rewarded his “good” with advantages in trading, and arranged marriages in this small community, all in an ill-considered attempt “to create a harmonious town where jealousy, envy, and excessive ambition were checked for the good of all. ” Yet we have witnessed what this lofty goal actually created: a village where folk were compelled to act against their own natures, where their emotions could not be expressed, and where ultimately, in a single season, suicides and murders took the lives of more than half the population.

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  In considering the magnitude of the suffering that was created, we can only find fault with ourselves that the Master level of Skill-users remained ignorant of what Skillmaster Clarity was doing until the damage had been done. In order to avoid such a disastrous misuse of the Skill in the future, the following actions have been taken.

  Skillmaster Clarity is to be sealed from use of the Skill in any form henceforth. The selection of a new Skillmaster will be made by a process in which the Queen or King suggests three candidates from among the Masters and a vote of the Masters chooses the new Skillmaster. The vote will be done in secrecy, the ballots counted publicly, and the results announced by three randomly chosen minstrels dedicated to the truth.

  This gathering of the Masters concludes that no Solo must ever hold the rank of Skillmaster again. If Clarity had had a coterie of his own, he would have been unable to conceal his actions.

  Henceforth, the Skillmaster shall submit himself to a review of all the Masters at least once a year. If he is found incompetent by a vote of the Masters, he will be replaced. In extreme cases of abuse or poor judgment, he will be sealed.

  Compensation and care will be provided to the survivors of the Cowshell Village Tragedy. While it cannot be revealed to any of them that the Skill was the source of the madness that overtook their village that night, all amends that can be made to them must be made, with openhanded generosity and no cessation of such reparation until their natural deaths.

  Resolution of the Masters following the Cowshell Village Tragedy

  That first evening that the baby existed outside of Molly’s body, I was dazed by her. Long after Molly fell asleep with the baby cradled against her, I sat by the fire and watched them both. I invented a hundred futures for her, all of them bright with promise. Molly had told me she was small; I dismissed that concern. All babies were small! She would be fine, and more than fine. She would be clever, this little girl of mine, and lovely. She would dance like thistledown on the wind, and ride as if she were part of her mount. Molly would teach her of bees and to know the names and properties of every herb in the garden; I would teach her to read and to figure. She would be a prodigy. I imagined her little hands stained with ink as she helped with a transcription, or copied over the illustrations that would never go right for me. I imagined her on the floor of the ballroom of Buckkeep Castle, twirling in a scarlet gown. My heart was full of her and I wanted the world to celebrate with me.

  I laughed aloud, ruefully, at how astounded everyone would be to hear of her. Nettle and I had not noised about Molly’s claim to be pregnant. We had thought it a sorrow we should keep to ourselves. And now, how foolish we would both look when the word went out that I had a child, a little daughter, fair as a daisy. I imagined a gathering to welcome her to the world. Her brothers would come, with their families, and Hap. Oh, that I could somehow send word to the Fool of the joy that had come into my life! I smiled to think of it and longed that it could be so. There would be music and feasting on her naming day. Kettricken, and Dutiful and his Queen, and the Princes, even Chade would make the journey to Withywoods.

  And with that thought, my elation began to unravel. A child imagined is not the same as a child sleeping in her mother’s arms. What would Kettricken and Chade see when they looked at her? I could imagine Chade’s skepticism that such a fair-haired child could be of Farseer lineage. And Kettricken? If she recognized that my own Mountain mother had likely been fair and acknowledged the babe as the daughter of FitzChivalry Farseer, what then? What would she think she had the right to ask of my daughter? Would this infant, like Nettle, be seen as a secret reserve of Farseer blood, an heir that could be produced if the recognized line should somehow fail?

  Trepidation rose in me, a cold tide that drowned my heart in fear. How could I have longed for this child and never considered the dangers that would surround her, simply by virtue of her bei
ng my daughter? Chade would want to test her for the Skill. Kettricken would believe that the Farseer throne had the right to select a husband for her.

  I rose and soundlessly paced the room, a wolf guarding his den. Molly slept on, the sleep of exhaustion. The swaddled babe next to her stirred softly and then subsided. I had to protect them, to give the child a future she could determine for herself. My mind swirled with ideas. Flight. We would pack tomorrow and flee; we’d travel to where we could settle as simply Molly and Tom and our baby … no. Molly would never consent to breaking off contact with her other children; nor could I just walk away from those I loved, no matter what threat they might seem to present right now.

  So what could I do? I looked at them, sleeping so peacefully, so vulnerable. I would keep them safe, I vowed to myself. It suddenly came to me that the child’s fair hair and blue eyes might be in our favor. No one would look at her and assume that she was the natural child of Molly or me. We could claim she was a foundling, taken in. The falsehood blossomed in my mind. So easy to claim! Not even Nettle need know; once I had shown Molly the threat to the child, perhaps she would agree to the deception. Nettle would believe we had adopted the babe to placate her mother’s longing for an infant. No one need know that she was truly a Farseer. One simple lie could keep her safe.

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  If I could get Molly to agree to it.

  That night I went to our room for bedding and took it back down to the nursery. I slept across the door, on the floor, like a wolf guarding his den and cub. It felt right.

  The next day was filled with both sweetness and trepidation. By the light of dawn, I saw my plans for denying my child as the foolishness it was. The servants in a great house know all, and Revel would immediately know that no foundling had been delivered to us the night before. I could not possibly conceal from the staff that Molly had borne her child, so I warned them that the babe was small, and her mother weary. I am sure they considered me quite as mad as they had Molly as I insisted that I would take Molly’s meals in to her and that she must absolutely not be disturbed. Not only my veracity as to there being a baby in the house but my authority as a male in such a female area was instantly dismissed. By ones and twos and threes, the women of the Withywoods staff each found some pressing errand that demanded entrance to the nursery. First it was Cook Nutmeg, insisting that she must speak with Molly to know exactly what her mistress would wish to have for her luncheon and supper on such a momentous day. Her daughter Mild slipped in behind her, a slender shadow to her mother’s generous figure. Molly had been unaware of my efforts to keep her undisturbed. I could not blame her for a certain starchy smugness as she presented the baby to Cook and her daughter.

 
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