Fools assassin, p.2
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       Fools Assassin, p.2

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

  I gave him a puzzled glance. “Well, let them in, man. It’s Winterfest. ”

  He stood still, his lips folded in disapproval. “Sir, I do not think they were invited. ”

  “It’s Winterfest,” I repeated, beginning to be annoyed. Molly would not be pleased at being kept waiting. “Patience invites every minstrel, puppeteer, tumbler, tinker, or blacksmith she meets to come and sojourn with us for a time. She probably invited them months ago and forgot all about it. ”

  I did not think his back could get stiffer, but it did. “Sir, they were outside the stable, trying to peer in through a crack in the planking. Tallman heard the dogs barking and went to see what it was about and found them. That is when they said they were minstrels, invited for Winterfest. ”

  “And?”

  He took a short breath. “Sir, I do not think they are minstrels. They have no instruments. And while one said they were minstrels, another said, no, they were tumblers. But when Tallman said he would walk them up to the front door, they said that he needn’t, they only wished to beg shelter for the night, and the stable would be fine. ” He shook his head. “Tallman spoke to me privately when he brought them up. He thinks they’re none of what they claim to be. And so do I. ”

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  I gave him a look. Revel folded his arms. He did not meet my glance, but his mouth was stubborn. I found a bit of patience for him. He was young and fairly new to the household. Cravit Softhands, our ancient steward, had died last year. Riddle had stepped up to shoulder many of the old man’s duties, but insisted that Withywoods needed a new steward trained. I’d casually replied that I did not have time to find one, and within three days Riddle had brought Revel to us. After two months, Revel was still learning his place, I told myself, and considered that perhaps Riddle had infused him with a bit too much caution. Riddle was, after all, Chade’s man, insinuated into our household to watch my back and probably spy on me. Despite his current merriness and devotion to my daughter, he was a man steeped in carefulness. Given his way, we’d have had a guard contingent at Withywoods to rival the Queen’s Own. I reined my mind back to the question at hand.

  “Revel, I appreciate your care. But it’s Winterfest. And be they minstrels or wandering beggars, no man should be turned from our door on such a holiday, or on such a snowy evening. While there’s room in the house, they need not sleep in the stable. Bring them in. I’m sure all will be well. ”

  “Sir. ” He was not agreeing, but he was obeying. I suppressed a sigh. That would do for now. I turned to join the throng in the Great Hall.

  “Sir?”

  I turned back to him. My voice was stern as I asked him, “Is there something else, Revel? Something pressing?” I could hear the tentative notes of musicians bringing their instruments into harmony, and then the music suddenly opened into blossom. I’d missed the start of the first dance. I gritted my teeth as I thought of Molly standing alone, watching the dancers whirl.

  I saw his teeth catch for an instant on his lower lip. He decided to press on. “Sir, the messenger still waits for you in your study. ”

  “Messenger?”

  Revel gave a martyred sigh. “Hours ago, I sent one of our temporary pages looking for you with a message. He said he shouted it at you through the door of the steams. I have to inform you, sir, this is what comes of us using untrained boys and girls as pages. We should have a few here permanently, if only to train them for future need. ”

  At my wearied look, Revel cleared his throat and changed tactics. “My apologies, sir. I should have sent him back to confirm you’d heard him. ”

  “I didn’t. Revel, would you mind dealing with it for me?” I took a hesitant step toward the hall. The music was rising.

  Revel gave a minute shake of his head. “I am very sorry, sir. But the messenger insists the message is specifically for you. I have asked twice if I could be of any help, and offered to write the message for you. ” He shook his head. “The messenger insists that only you can receive the words. ”

  I guessed the message, then. Holder Barit had been trying to wrangle me into agreeing that he could pasture some of his flock with our sheep. Our shepherd had adamantly insisted that this would be too many beasts for our winter pasturage. I intended to listen to Shepherd Lin, even if Barit was now willing to offer a decent amount of money. Winterfest eve was no time to be doing business. It would keep. “It’s fine, Revel. And don’t be too stern with our pages. You are right. We should have one or two on staff. But most of them will grow up to work in the orchards or follow their mothers’ trades. It’s rare that we need them here at Withy. ” I didn’t want to be thinking about this right now. Molly was waiting! I took a breath and made my decision. “Thoughtless as it is for me to have left a messenger waiting so long, it would be ruder by far if I leave my lady unpartnered for the second dance as well as the first. Please extend my apology to the messenger for my unfortunate delay and see that he is made comfortable with food and drink. Tell him that I’ll come to the study directly after the second dance. ” I had no wish to do so. The festivities beckoned tonight. A better idea came to me. “No! Invite him to join the festivities. Tell him to enjoy himself, and that we will sit down together before noon tomorrow. ” I could think of nothing in my life that could possibly be so pressing as to demand my attention tonight.

  “Her, sir. ”

  “Revel?”

  “Her. The messenger is a girl, sir. Scarcely a woman, by the look of her. Of course, I have already offered her food and drink. I would not so neglect anyone who came to your door. Let alone one who seems to have come a long and weary way. ”

  Music was playing and Molly was waiting. Better the messenger wait than Molly. “Then offer her a room, and ask if she would like a hot bath drawn or a quiet meal alone before we meet tomorrow. Do your best to see she is comfortable, Revel, and I will give her as much of my time as she wishes tomorrow. ”

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  “I shall, sir. ”

  He turned to go back to the entrance hall, and I hastened to the Great Hall of Withywoods. The two tall doors stood open, the golden oak planks gleaming in firelight and candlelight. Music and the tap and slap of dancing feet spilled from into the paneled corridor, but just as I drew near the musicians played the last refrain and with a shout the first dance was over. I rolled my eyes at my ill luck.

  But as I stepped into the hall, breasting the wave of applause for the minstrels, I saw that Molly’s dance partner was bowing gravely to her. My stepson had rescued his mother and taken her to the floor. Young Hearth had been growing like a weed for the past year. He was as darkly handsome as his father, Burrich, had been, but his brow and smiling mouth were Molly’s. At seventeen he could look down at the top of his mother’s head. His cheeks were flushed with the lively dance, and Molly did not look as if she had missed me even a tiny bit. As she looked up and her eyes met mine across the hall, she smiled. I blessed Hearth and resolved that I would find a substantial way to convey my thanks to him. Across the room, his older brother, Just, lounged against the hearth. Nettle and Riddle stood nearby; Nettle’s cheeks were pink and I knew Just was teasing his older sister, and Riddle was in on it.

  I made my way across the room to Molly, pausing often to bow and return greetings to our many guests who hailed me. Every rank and walk of life was reflected there. The gentry and minor nobility of our area were there, finely dressed in lace and linen trousers; Tinker John and the village seamstress and a local cheesemaker as well. Their festive garments might be a bit more dated, and some were well worn, but they had been freshly brushed for the occasion and the shining holly crowns and sprigs that many wore were newly harvested. Molly had put out her best scented candles, so the fragrances of lavender and honeysuckle filled the air even as the dancing flames painted the walls with gold and honey. Grand fires blazed in all three hearths, with spitted meats tended by red-faced village lads employed for the oc
casion. Several maids were busy at the ale keg in the corner, topping mugs on the trays they would offer to the breathless dancers when the music paused.

  At one end of the room, tables were laden with breads, apples, dishes of raisins and nuts, pastries and creams, platters of smoked meats and fish, and many another dish I didn’t recognize. Dripping slices of fresh-cut meat from the roasts on the spits supplied all that any man could ask for, and added their rich fragrance to the festive air. Benches were filled with guests already enjoying food and drink, for there was also beer and wine in plenty.

  At the other end of the room the first minstrels were yielding the stage to the second. The floor had been strewn with sand for the dancers. Undoubtedly it had been swept into elegant patterns when the guests first arrived, but it now showed the busy tread of the merrymakers. I reached Molly’s side just as the musicians swept into their opening notes. This tune was as pensive as the first had been jolly, so as Molly seized my hand and led me to the dance floor, I was able to keep possession of both her hands and hear her voice through the melody. “You look very fine tonight, Holder Badgerlock. ” She drew me into line with the other men.

  I bowed gravely over our joined hands. “If you are pleased, then I am content,” I replied. I ignored the flapping of fabric against my calves as we turned, parted briefly, and then clasped hands again. I caught a glimpse of Riddle and Nettle. Yes, Riddle wore the same sort of flapping trousers, in blue, and he held my daughter not by her fingertips but by her hands. Nettle was smiling. When I glanced back at Molly, she was smiling, too. She had noted the direction of my glance.

  “Were we ever that young?” she asked me.

  I shook my head. “I think not,” I said. “Life was harsher for us when we were that age. ”

  I saw her cast her thoughts back through the years. “When I was Nettle’s age, I was already the mother of three children and carrying a fourth. And you were …” She let the thought trail away, and I did not speak. I had been living in a little cabin near Forge with my wolf. Was that the year I had taken in Hap? The orphan had been glad of a home, and Nighteyes had been glad of livelier company. I had thought myself resigned, then, to losing her to Burrich. Nineteen long years ago. I pushed the long shadow of those days aside. I stepped closer, put my hands to her waist, and lifted her as we turned. She set her hands to my shoulders, her mouth opening in surprise and delight. Around us, the other dancers gawked briefly. As I put her back on her feet, I observed, “And that is why we should be young now. ”

  “You, perhaps. ” Her cheeks were pink and she seemed a bit breathless as we made another promenade and turned, parted then rejoined. Or almost rejoined. No, I should have turned again and then … I’d hopelessly muddled it, just as I’d been taking great pride that I recalled every step from the last time we had danced this. The other dancers avoided me, parting to flow past me as if I were a stubborn rock in a creek. I spun in a circle, looking for Molly, and found her standing behind me, her hands lifted in a useless attempt to contain her laughter. I reached for her, intending to insert us back into the dance, but she seized both my hands and pulled me from the floor, laughing breathlessly. I rolled my eyes and tried to apologize but, “It’s all right, dear. A bit of rest and something to drink would be welcome. Hearth wore me out earlier with his prancing. I need a brief rest. ” She caught her breath suddenly and swayed against me. Her brow glistened with perspiration. She set her hand to the back of her neck and rubbed it as if to relieve a cramp.

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  “And I the same,” I lied to her. Her face flushed, she smiled faintly at me as she pressed her hand to her breast as if to calm her fluttering heart. I smiled back at her and took her to her chair by the hearth. I had scarcely seated her before a page was at my elbow, offering to bring her wine. She nodded and sent him scampering.

  “What was that, stitched all round his cap?” I asked distractedly.

  “Feathers. And locks of hair from horse tails. ” She was still breathless.

  I looked askance at her.

  “It was Patience’s fancy this year. All the boys she hired from Withy to act as pages for the holiday are dressed so. Feathers to bid all our troubles take flight, and horse tail hairs, which is what we will show to our problems as we flee them. ”

  “I … see. ” My second lie of the evening.

  “Well, it’s good that you do, as I certainly don’t. But every Winterfest, it’s something, isn’t it? Do you remember the year that Patience handed out greenwood staffs to every unmarried man who came to the festival? With the length based on her assessment of his masculinity?”

  I bit down on the laugh that threatened to escape. “I do. Apparently she thought the young ladies needed a clear indication of which men would make the best mates. ”

  Molly lifted her brows. “Perhaps they did. There were six weddings at Springfest that year. ”

  My wife looked across the room. Patience, my stepmother, was dressed in a grand old gown of pale-blue velvet trimmed with black lace at the cuffs and throat. Her long gray hair had been braided and pinned to her head in a coronet. She had a single sprig of holly in it, and several dozen bright-blue feathers stuck in at all angles. A fan dangled from a bracelet at her wrist; it was blue to match her gown and feathers, and also edged with stiffened black lace. She looked both lovely and eccentric to me, as she always had. She was wagging a finger at Molly’s youngest, warning him about something. Hearth stood straight, looking solemnly down at her, but his clasped fingers fidgeted behind his back. His brother Just stood at a distance, concealing his grin and waiting for him to be released. I took pity on them both. Patience seemed to think they were still ten and twelve, despite how they towered over her. Just was barely short of his twentieth birthday, and Hearth was Molly’s youngest at seventeen. Yet he stood like a scolded boy and tolerantly accepted Patience’s rebuke.

  “I want to let Lady Patience know that more of her minstrels have arrived. I hope this is the last batch of them. Any more and I suspect they’ll be coming to blows over who gets to perform and for how long. ” Any minstrels invited to perform at Withywoods were assured of meals and a warm place to sleep, and a small purse for their efforts. The rest of their rewards were won from the guests, and often the musicians who performed the most reaped the greatest gain. Three sets of musicians were more than ample for a Winterfest at our holding. Four would be a challenge.

  Molly nodded. She lifted her hands to her rosy cheeks. “I think I’ll just sit here a bit longer. Oh, here’s the lad with my wine!”

  There was a lull in the music, and I took the opportunity to cross the dance floor quickly. Patience saw me coming and first smiled and then scowled at me. By the time I reached her side, she had completely forgotten Hearth and he had escaped with his brother. She snapped her fan shut, pointed it at me, and asked me accusingly, “What has become of your leggings? Those skirts are flapping about your legs like a ship with storm-torn canvas!”

  I looked down at them, and up at her. “The new style from Jamaillia. ” As her disapproval deepened, I added, “Molly chose them. ”

  Lady Patience stared down as if perhaps I had a litter of kittens concealed in them. Then she lifted her eyes to mine, smiled, and said, “A lovely color. And I am sure she is pleased that you wore them. ”

  “She is. ”

  Patience lifted her hand, I extended my arm, she placed her hand on my forearm, and we began a slow perambulation of the Great Hall. Folk parted for her, bowing and curtsying. Lady Patience, for so she was this evening, gravely inclined her head or warmly greeted or embraced as each person merited. I was content simply to be her escort, to see her enjoying herself, and to endeavor to keep a straight face through her whispered asides about Lord Durden’s breath or her pity for how quickly Tinker Dan was losing his hair. Some of the older guests remembered when she was not only the lady of Withywoods but wife to Prince Chivalry. In many ways, she still reigned her
e, for Nettle spent a good portion of her time at Buckkeep Castle as Skillmistress to King Dutiful, and Molly was content to let Patience have her way in most things.

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  “There are times in a woman’s life when only the company of other women can suffice,” Patience had explained to me when she had summarily moved in with us at Withywoods five years previously. “Girls need an older woman in the house as they become women, to explain those changes to them. And when that other change comes early to women, especially women who hoped to bear more children, it is good to have the guidance of a woman who has also known that disappointment. Men are simply not helpful at this time. ” And while I had known trepidation about the arrangement when Patience first arrived with her baggage train of animals, seeds, and plants, she had proven the wisdom of her words. I knew it was rare for two women to exist so contentedly under one roof and blessed my good fortune.

  When we reached her favorite chair by the hearth, I deposited her there, fetched her a cup of mulled cider, and then confided to her, “The last of your musicians arrived just as I came down the stairs. I haven’t seen them come in yet, but I thought you’d want to know that they are here. ”

  She raised her brows at me and then turned to peer the length of the room. The third set of musicians were moving to take over the dais there. She looked back at me, “No, they’re all here. I was most careful in my selection this year. For Winterfest, I thought to myself, we must have some warm-tempered folk to keep the chill away. And so, if you look, there is a redhead in every group that I’ve invited. There, see the woman warming her voice? Look at that cascade of auburn hair. Don’t tell me that she won’t warm this fest with her spirit alone. ” She did indeed appear to be a very warm-natured woman. She let the dancers rest by launching into a long story song, more fit for listening than dancing, sung in a rich and throaty voice. Her audience, old and young, drew closer to her as she sang the old tale of the maiden seduced by the Old Man of winter and carried off to his distant ice fortress in the far south.

 
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