Fools assassin, p.21
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       Fools Assassin, p.21

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

  He didn’t. “It’s a gift for her. From Lord Chade Fallstar. ”

  “Of course it is. ” My voice was flat. I returned to his garments, hooked my toe under the heap, and kicked them to him. “You can get dressed. ”

  “And my things?” the youngster asked sullenly. He spoke over his shoulder as he tugged on his underthings. I stooped to the floor, and the tools of his trade disappeared up my sleeve. I heard the rustle of fabric as he pulled on his shirt and trousers.

  “What things?” I asked pleasantly. “Your boots and stockings? There on the floor. Put them on. Then get out of this room. And stay out of this wing of my home. Or I’ll kill you. ”

  “I wasn’t sent to do the baby harm. Only to see it, to leave the gift, and to report back what I’d seen. Lord Chade warned her that you’d catch me but Lady Rosemary insisted. It was a test. One I’ve failed. ”

  “Failed twice, I assume. I doubt they gave you permission to name their names to anyone. ”

  The boy was quiet. “They said it was just a test. ” His voice broke on the words. “And I’ve failed it. Twice. ”

  “You’re assuming that you were the one they were testing. Dressed? Good. Get out. No. Wait. What’s your name?”

  He held his tongue. I sighed and took a step toward him.

  “Lant. ”

  I waited.

  The boy took a breath that was half a sob. “FitzVigilant. ”

  I pondered a moment, sifting names of minor nobility. “Of Farrow?”

  “Yes, sir. ”

  “And how old are you?”

  The boy drew himself up straighter. “Twelve, sir. ”

  “Twelve? Eleven, I might have believed. But ten is more likely, isn’t it?”

  The lad’s dark eyes flashed fury. The tears were running freely down his cheeks. Oh, Chade. Is this your future assassin? He looked down and said simply, “Sir. ”

  I sighed. Had I ever been that young? “Go, boy. Now. ”

  The spy fled with no pretense at stealth. He did not quite slam the door behind him, but he shut it quite firmly. I listened to the sound of his pattering steps as he fled. When they became softer, I stepped to the door, listened, opened it, and stepped out. Then I closed the door again, retrieved my boots, and came to Bee’s cradle. “For now, he’s gone,” I told my child and shook my head. “Chade, you old spider, what are you playing at? Was that truly the best you could send my way? Or was he the decoy?”

  I moved efficiently about the room, checking the window latch and looking everywhere an assassin might conceivably hide. When I had made that round, I returned to the cradle and lifted the lacy drapery away. I found a lamp, lit it, and moved it to the stand by the cradle. I worked as if my staring baby were made of spun sugar as I lifted each blanket away and carefully shook it. Her garments looked untouched. Would I chance that? I had begun removing her clothing to check for anything that this spy or a previous one might have been able to put on her when Molly entered the room.

  “There you are! I’ve half a dozen serving boys scouring Withywoods for you. Our guests are waiting to go in for a meal. You’ve missed their minstrel singing a very long song to thank us for our welcome. ”

  “Glad of that,” I admitted. The tiny ribbons on Bee’s gown were defying me.

  “Fitz?” Molly swept into the room. “What are you doing? Didn’t you hear me? The meal is nearly ready. ”

  I lied to her. Again. “I came in to be sure she was fine and she was crying. I thought she might be wet. ”

  “Crying? And I didn’t hear her?”

  “It wasn’t loud. I wouldn’t have heard her except that I was passing the door. ”

  Molly immediately took charge of her. I clenched my teeth, fearing that there might still be something hidden in her garments that could hurt either her or her mother. Molly expertly opened her clothes, checked her napkin, and then looked at me in consternation. “She’s fine. ” I watched intently as Molly refastened the ribbon ties I had loosened.

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  “I don’t want to leave her here alone,” I said abruptly.

  Molly stared at me. Then she shook her head. “Nor I,” she admitted. “But I didn’t want to take her with us to greet our guests. I want to choose when and how Queen Kettricken first sees her. ”

  “Lady Kettricken,” I reminded her. “Queen of the Six Duchies no more. ”

  “Only in name,” my mother harrumphed. “The Narcheska is in Buckkeep Castle only a few months of every year. And King Dutiful spends too much time away from the throne. She rules the Six Duchies, Fitz, and the Mountain Kingdom. ”

  “Well. Someone must hold the reins of power when King Dutiful is not there. Better Kettricken than Chade unchecked,” I replied. Could she hear the divided loyalties in my voice? Hear my unspoken thought that if Kettricken had not assumed those duties, they might have fallen on me? Certainly Chade had hoped to harness me for that role, and Kettricken and King Dutiful would have been happy to allow it. I had known Kettricken since I was a youth, and once we had been as close as only conspirators could be. But tonight she had brought a spy into my house, one that had come in stealth to my daughter’s cradle. Did she know of young FitzVigilant’s mission? Or had Chade and Lady Rosemary acted alone, out of concern for the Farseer throne and lineage? Well did I know that to Chade, the best interests of the throne came far ahead of the best interests of any individual Farseer. That I had learned at the old assassin’s knee.

  Molly broke into my thoughts. “Nettle will be leading our guests into the dining room soon. We have to be there. ”

  I made a decision. “Let’s take her with us. Cradle and all. ”

  “Fitz, I don’t think …”

  But I had already stooped and lifted the cradle. It was not large, but neither was it light. I tried to make it look easy as I edged out the door with it and started down the hall. Behind me, Molly followed with Bee clasped to her breast.

  The dining hall was not often used. The ceilings were high, and the two large hearths at either end of the room struggled to warm such a large space. Molly and I had formed the habit of taking most of our meals in a much smaller room, but tonight the fires had been set and the chandeliers lit. The long table, prepared for fifteen, could easily have seated forty. The dark wooden table had an embroidered runner down the center, and silver candelabra holding graceful white tapers, the work of Molly’s own hands. Carved wooden bowls in the shape of Eda’s cupped hands held red and yellow apples, fat raisins in bunches, and gleaming brown nuts. The candles cast a warm glow over the table, but their light could not reach the distant ceiling or the far corners of the room.

  We arrived simultaneously with the guests. Molly and I stood and greeted them as they filed past. I put more effort into making holding the cradle look effortless, and was grateful finally to follow them into the room. I made no comment as I set the cradle where the hearth would warm it but it would not be more than six paces from my chair. Molly swiftly settled Bee inside it and then draped the lace hanger above her that would keep away drafts and casual glances. We moved to the head of the table, once more acknowledged our guests, and took our places.

  Lady Kettricken was to my right. Nettle occupied the other seat of honor at Molly’s left hand. If any thought the seating arrangement odd, no one spoke of it. I located the young spy seated on the left side of the table and as far from me as possible. He had changed his garments, which was not surprising, as I had not been excessively careful when I was slitting open seams and pockets. He appeared fascinated by the edge of the table. The captain of Kettricken’s guard had accompanied her on this visit and he was seated with us, attired in his purple and white. She had brought a healer with her, one of noble blood, Lady Solace, and her husband, Lord Diggery. Kettricken’s other followers were unknown to me except by name. Lord Stoutheart was a bluff and hearty man, white-haired and red-nosed. Lady Hope was plump and pleasant, a chatty woman who
laughed frequently.

  Kettricken lifted her hand and set it on mine. I turned to her with a smile, and as always I knew that brief moment of surprise. To me she was always a young woman, golden-haired and blue-eyed, with an open mien and a tranquil air about her. I saw a woman with silver hair, her brow lined with care. Her eyes were as blue as Bee’s. Her spine was straight, her head upright. She was like a graceful glass vessel that brimmed with power and certainty. She was no longer the foreign Mountain Princess struggling to negotiate the currents of power at a strange court. She had become the current of power that others must navigate. She spoke for Molly and me alone. “I am so glad for you. ”

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  I nodded, and gestured to Revel to begin serving. I made no comment on Bee or how we had brought her into the dining room. Kettricken understood and did not broach the topic. The meal commenced. It was served with considerably less formality than a dinner at Buckkeep Castle, yet more pomp than we usually observed at Withywoods. Nettle had instructed Revel to keep the visit simple, and though he had chafed at this, he had almost complied. So dishes were passed and I served the wine, and the conversation was casual and sometimes merry. We learned that Lady Solace often traveled with Kettricken now, for she had begun to have problems with her joints. At the end of the day she welcomed her handmaid’s oil rubs as well as the hot drinks she concocted. Lord Stoutheart and Lady Hope had joined them simply because they were bound for their own homes for the winter after a pleasant visit at Buckkeep Castle. Withywoods was on the route that they must travel. Indeed, the bulk of the servants and guards accompanying Kettricken were not her own people but Lord Stoutheart’s.

  The smells of the food and the pleasant clatter of eating might have lulled another man. I took this time as my opportunity to study my guests. I considered Lady Solace’s presence as genuinely the product of Kettricken’s wish, but reserved judgment on Lord Stoutheart and Lady Hope. I wondered if the youthful assassin had come as part of Kettricken’s retinue. If he had, did Kettricken know the full of what he was or had the royal assassins added him as an anonymous member of her party? Perhaps he had been slipped in by Lady Rosemary as a stable boy for the traveling party. I had often served in that capacity when Chade wanted eyes or ears somewhere he himself could not go. Yet the lad had been well dressed, not in a stable hand’s leathers but in silk and linen. I watched Lant as he picked at his food and wondered again if he was a lure to distract me. I was glad we had not left Bee alone in the room, and decided I would inspect the entire nursery before I put her to bed there tonight. No, I abruptly decided. I would put the cradle by my bed and watch over Bee myself.

  The relief I felt at that decision was palpable. I found my tongue and became more talkative and jocular, and Molly, Nettle, and Kettricken all smiled to see me so. The conversation was lively, ranging from the late apple crop, to the hunting prospects near Withywoods and Buckkeep Castle, to news of old friends who lived in the Mountain Kingdom. Kettricken asked after Molly’s children, and relayed the latest news from the Princes. The minstrel and his two assistants arrived, with their small drums and pipes, and added music to our enjoyment. The meal lasted long and the hour was late when the last dish was finally cleared from the table.

  “Shall we move to a cozier room?” Molly suggested, for the large dining hall was inevitably drafty and cool on a stormy night.

  “Let’s,” I agreed, and Kettricken replied, “A warmer room will be a pleasanter place for me to meet your little daughter. ”

  She did not ask, she assumed. I smiled at that. We were old partners at this sort of gaming. She had recognized my gambit, respected it, and now advanced her own. Nonetheless, I resolved that I would win this round against her for Bee as I had not won for Nettle. As Molly and I and our guests rose, I smiled but did not verbally respond to Kettricken’s words. I reached the cradle quickly and held the gauzy drapery aside to allow Molly to gather Bee up. She draped a blanket around the baby as she did so, and then waited confidently for me to once more lift the cradle. I managed it without a groan. A quick glance told me that Nettle had detained the former Queen with some minor conversation, and that she then motioned for her to precede her out of the room. Molly and I came last, following our guests as Nettle led the way to a sitting room.

  A stranger might have assumed this room was my den. In addition to comfortable seating and a roaring fire in the hearth, the walls were lined with shelves and held many books bound in the Jamaillian style. Above them, on racks, were older scrolls and vellums. There was a desk in the corner near the heavily draped window, and on it was an inkpot and blank paper. It was all for show. On these shelves a spy might find a journal of the birds I had seen in the last four years, or notes on the operation of Withywoods. There were enough estate records and papers in this room to make at least a casual thief believe he had found my lair. But he would find no sign here of FitzChivalry Farseer or of the work I did for Chade.

  Once again the cradle was carefully placed but as Molly moved to install Bee in it, Kettricken swept past Nettle to her side. “May I hold her?” she asked, and there was such simple warmth in her request that no one could have refused it. Perhaps only I saw how Molly’s smile stiffened as she offered our bundled child to the former Queen. As she took Bee into her arms, blanket and all, Kettricken’s brows lifted in subtle surprise. Nettle moved closer; I felt my older daughter’s Skill thrumming wariness. I think it was a pack instinct to protect the smallest that operated on a level so profoundly deep that she was scarcely aware of how she joined her Skill to mine. The moment could not be avoided. Molly lifted the light covering that had hidden our baby’s face.

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  I watched Kettricken’s expression as she looked down into Bee’s answering stare. For the baby was silent but awake, meeting her gaze with eyes as blue as her own. Kettricken gave so tiny a gasp that perhaps no one else remarked it. Her smile did not fade, but it grew stiffer. She took two steps to a chair and sank into it. Then, as if determined to prove something to herself, she loosened the blanket that wrapped Bee.

  My daughter was dressed in a confection of silk and lace such as none of Molly’s other children had ever worn. Even taken in to fit our tiny babe—for Molly had sewn it months before the birth—it only emphasized how tiny she was. Bee’s hands were curled onto her chest, and Kettricken stared at the fingers as small as a bird’s toes. As if daring herself, she touched Bee’s left hand with her forefinger.

  The other guests had drawn closer, expecting that they, too, would be allowed to see her. Kettricken glanced up, not at me, but at Lady Solace, her healer. The woman had moved to the old Queen’s shoulder to look at the child, and now as her gaze met Kettricken’s I knew what her resigned countenance conveyed. I had seen it in the eyes of our household women. In her healer’s opinion, Bee was not a child who would remain long in this world. Whatever Kettricken thought of her pale hair and blue eyes, she said nothing of it. The old Queen gently folded the blankets around her and covered her face again. The action chilled me, for her fingers were as gentle as if she were shrouding a dead child. “She’s so tiny,” she said as she offered Bee back to her mother. She offered sympathy. Somehow her words conveyed that she understood why Bee had not been announced to a world where she would stay only briefly.

  As I watched Molly’s arms enfold her, I sensed her relief to have Bee safely back in her embrace. Molly’s back was straight as a guardsman’s, her eyes calm, and her voice level as she added, “But perfect. ”

  “And she’s growing every day,” I lied heartily.

  Silence followed my words and I wished I could call them back. Every woman worked out their import in her own mind, but only the healer spoke. “How tiny was she when she was born? Did she come early?” The room stilled, awaiting a response.

  But Molly only gathered Bee to her and walked over to stand by the fireplace. She rocked and patted her as she stood silently, and as
if rebuked the guests receded to take chairs. Even Kettricken found a comfortable seat; only Lady Solace remained standing. She studied Molly and suddenly observed, “You seem to have recovered very swiftly from your confinement, Lady Molly. ” An unspoken question. Is the baby truly yours?

  “I had an easy time of it,” Molly replied modestly, and glanced aside from the men present in the room. I could feel how avid Lady Solace was to ask more questions; she had the healer’s drive to know every root of a problem and then apply her skills to solving it. Molly sensed that, too, and it made her uneasy. When she looked at our child, she saw nothing amiss, save that Bee was much smaller than all her other babies had been. But in the healer’s inquisitive glance, Molly read that the woman saw Bee as damaged or sickly. Were she given over into that woman’s care, she would attempt to fix our babe as if Bee were a broken toy. I felt a rush of antipathy toward the woman; how dare she see my Bee as less than perfect! And beneath that, a cold river of trepidation that she might, somehow, be right. The urge to get her safely away from the healer’s anxious eyes raced through me. I did not wish to hear anything the woman might say about Bee. My glance met Molly’s. She held our baby closer and then smiled.

  “You are so kind to be concerned for me. It is so thoughtful of you, for of course I do tire easily. It is not easy to be a new mother at my age. ” Molly smiled round at her guests. “Thank you kindly for understanding that my daughter will take up my duties as hostess, for I know you will understand my need to retire early. But please, do not feel you must emulate me. I know that my husband has longed for company, and seldom gets a chance to spend hours in conversation with old friends. I shall trouble him only to move Bee’s cradle for me, and then I shall send him right back to you. ”

  I hoped I covered my surprise. It was not just that she had made such a sudden decision, but the imperious way in which Molly informed all gathered that she had done so. I had a glimpse of Nettle’s face; she was already calculating how to repair the social damage. In the set of her mouth I saw two things: She shared her mother’s fear that Lady Solace might find something wrong with Bee, and shared her cold tide of certainty that the healer would be right.

 

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