Fools assassin, p.22
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       Fools Assassin, p.22

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

  But I had a cradle to lift. Again. And a long flight of stairs before me. I stitched a smile to my face and took up my load. Our guests treated us to a chorus of swift good nights. Molly preceded me and I came behind, my pride creaking as much as my back. As soon as the door closed behind us, Molly whispered, “She sleeps in our room tonight, by my bedside. ”

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  “My thoughts exactly. ”

  “I don’t like how that woman looked at Bee. ”

  “Lady Solace?”

  Molly was silent, seething now. She knew I wanted to be assured that she had taken no offense at Kettricken’s comment, but she would not give me that. She had been offended by Lady Solace, and as Kettricken had brought her into our home, she extended her affront to the former Queen. She knew it divided my loyalty, but offered me no relief. She walked briskly down the hall and then up the wide steps to our bedchamber on the next floor. I followed her more slowly, the cradle weighing more with every step. By the time I set it down in our bedchamber, Molly had settled Bee in the center of our bed, and I knew she would sleep between us. Ah, just as well. I moved swiftly around the room, pretending to close the hangings tighter and build the fire higher, but actually checking alcoves and draperies for intruders. I kept my peace while she freed Bee of her finery and clothed her in a soft little nightshirt. It dwarfed her. As Molly folded the excess length around her feet, I asked her quietly, “You’ll be all right here if I go back down to our guests?”

  “I’m latching the door behind you,” she told me.

  I met her gaze. My mate’s stare assured me that our cub would be safe with her. “That would be wise,” I agreed. “I’ll knock and speak through the door when I come up to bed. ”

  “Well. That’s reassuring,” she said quietly, and then, despite ourselves, we both laughed.

  “I’m sure I’m being silly to worry so,” I lied to her.

  “I’m sure you’re being silly to think I’d believe you,” she responded, and followed me to the door. After it closed behind me, I heard Molly struggle a moment with a stiff, seldom-used bolt. Then I heard it slide home, metal against metal. It was a good sound.

  Kettricken and her companions stayed only a night. We did not bring Bee in to breakfast the next morning, and no one asked to see her. The minstrel was never summoned to look on her, in public or in private. Kettricken never mentioned that Bee should be documented as the true child of FitzChivalry Farseer. She was never entered into the formal lineage of possible heirs to the throne. Her life would not be like her sister’s; that was clear enough. Kettricken had evaluated my child and found her wanting. I could not decide if I felt angered by her dismissal of Bee or deeply grateful.

  For there was another side to that coin. If Kettricken had acknowledged my child, even privately, it would have been a veil of protection around her. That she had not claimed Bee as part of the Farseer dynasty put her outside the circle and left her as I had been left for so many years: a Farseer who was both an asset and a liability to the throne.

  Kettricken announced that she must leave shortly after noon, and that her friends were also traveling on to their home. The looks she gave me were deeply sympathetic. I think she assumed Molly and I wished to be left in privacy with our dwindling baby, to have what time we could with her before she was gone. It would have been a kind gesture, if Bee were truly failing. As it was, it was hard to bid her a fond farewell, for her departure almost seemed as if she were wishing a swift death on my daughter.

  Nettle stayed on for a week. She saw Bee daily, and I think she slowly realized that although Bee was not thriving and growing, neither was she dwindling. She stayed as she was, eating and drinking, her blue eyes taking in everything, her Wit-spark strong in my awareness. At last, Nettle announced she must return to Buckkeep and her duties there. Before she left, she found a quiet moment to berate me for not telling her sooner of Bee’s birth, and to plead that if there was any change in the health of child or Molly, I Skill to her immediately. I promised her that without difficulty.

  I did not Skill to Chade about his failed spy. I needed time to think. Bee was safe. Jest or test or threat, whatever it was, it was over. I had seen little of young Lant during Kettricken’s stay, but I did stand outside to be sure he was with her when she rode away. In the days that followed, I heard nothing from Chade about him.

  In the weeks that followed, Molly’s sons came and went in ones and twos, some with wife and children, others alone. They inspected Bee with the fond and accepting equanimity of much older siblings. There she was, another baby, very small, but their mother seemed happy and Tom Badgerlock seemed content with his lot, so there was nothing for them to fret about here, and a great deal to worry about at their respective homes. The house seemed to grow quieter after the company had left, as if winter had truly settled into the bones of the land.

  I enjoyed my lady wife and my child.

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  And I pondered my next move.

  Chapter Eight

  The Spider’s Lair

  And so, as I always have, I turn to you for counsel. Fool that you are, you always gave me the wisest advice. Even as I know how impossible it is, I yearn once more to sit down and take thought with you. You always had the mind to look at the tangled knot of court politics and tell me where each thread was wound and trapped, to trace each strand in the hangman’s noose back to its instigator. I miss your insights sorely, as much as I miss your companionship. No warrior you, and yet, with you at my back, I felt guarded as with no other.

  But I will also admit that you have wounded me as few others could. You wrote to Jofron? But not to me? If there had been but one note from you, in all these years, at least I would have a place to send these useless musings. By messenger or bird, I could send them on their way to you and imagine that in some distant time or place, they reached you, and you spared a thought for me. You know my nature. I take the bits and clues and puzzle them into an image in which you deliberately do not write to me, so that I cannot reach out to you in any way. Why? What can I think except that you fear I will somehow undo your work? From that foundation, I must wonder if that was always what I was to you. Only the Catalyst? The weapon that must be wielded without mercy, and then set aside, lest somehow it do an injury to you or your work?

  I need a friend, and I have none to whom I can admit my weakness, my fear, my errors. I have Molly’s love and Bee’s need for my strength. I dare not admit to either of them that my heart breaks to see Bee remain a passive infant. As my dreams for her evaporate and I fear a future in which she remains forever infantile and stunted, to whom can I confide my pain? To Molly, who dotes on her and fiercely insists that time will give her what she lacks? She does not seem to recognize that our child appears less intelligent than a two-day-old chick. Fool, my child will not meet my eyes. When I touch her, she draws away from me as much as she can. Which is not far, for she does not roll herself over, nor lift her head at all. She makes not a sound, save when she wails. Even that is not often. She does not reach for her mother’s finger. She is passive, Fool, more plant than child, and my heart breaks daily over her. I want to love her, and instead I find I have lost my heart to the child that is not here, the child I imagined she would be. And so I look at my Bee and long for her to be that which she is not. Which, perhaps, she never shall be.

  Ah, I do not know what comfort anyone could offer me, save to let me say these things aloud and not recoil in horror from my heartlessness.

  Instead I write these words and consign them to the flames or the litter of other useless musings that nightly I obsessively write.

  I waited four months before I went to Buckkeep Castle to confront Chade and Lady Rosemary.

  During those days the household was quiet, but busy in the routine way that life was always busy. My baby daughter nursed well and slept as little as any newborn did, according to Molly, which seemed an imp
ossibly small amount to me. Yet she did not disturb our nights with crying. Instead she lay still and silent, eyes open and staring into the corner of the darkened room. She slept still sheltered between Molly and me, and all hours of the day she was in her mother’s care.

  Bee grew, but so slowly. She remained healthy, but Molly confided to me that she did not do what other babes of her age could do. At first I ignored this worrying. Bee was small but perfect in my eyes. When I looked down on her in her crib, she stared at the ceiling with a blue gaze that pierced my heart with love. “Give her time,” I told Molly. “She’ll get there. I’ve fed up many a weakling, and seen them become the sharpest hounds in the pack. She’ll do. ”

  “She isn’t a puppy!” Molly rebuked me, but she smiled and added, “She was long in the womb, and emerged small. Perhaps it will take her more time to grow outside me as well. ”

  I do not think she believed my words, but she took comfort all the same. As the days passed, however, I could not ignore that my baby was not changing. At a month, she was little bigger than when she had been born. At first the maids would remark on what a “good baby” she was, so calm and placid. But soon they stopped saying such things, and pity grew in their faces. The fear grew in me that our child was an idiot. She had none of the features of a half-wit child that all parents know. Her tongue fit her mouth, her eyes and ears were proportional to her little face. She was as pretty as a doll, and as small and unresponsive.

  I did not face it, then.

  Instead I focused on the spy that Chade had sent into my home. In quiet, my anger grew. Perhaps I fed it with the fear and dread that I did not admit to myself. I thought long about it. I did not want to confront Chade by way of the Skill. I told myself that I needed to stand before him and make him recognize that I was not a man to be toyed with, not when it concerned my child.

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  At the end of four months, satisfied that all had remained quiet at home, I invented an excuse to visit Brushbanks. My tale was that I wished to look at a stud horse I’d heard was there. I promised Molly to return as soon as I possibly could, packed warmly for a chilly journey, and chose an unremarkable chestnut mare named Sally from the stable. She was a rangy mount with an easy gait that ate up the miles and no ambition to challenge her rider. I thought her the perfect mount for my journey to Buckkeep Town.

  I could have used the standing stones to make the journey, but I would have had to stable the horse somewhere. I told myself I did not wish to invite curiosity, and while my business with Chade was urgent, it was not an emergency. And I could admit to myself that I was afraid to do so. Since I had used the stones to travel to Chade’s sickbed, I had felt drawn to repeat the experiment. Had I been younger and less experienced with the Skill, I would have put it down to curiosity and a desire for knowledge. But I had felt that yearning before: it was the Skill-hunger, an urge to use the magic simply for the sake of feeling it thrill through me. No. I would not risk a Skill-pillar journey again. Especially since I suspected Chade now monitored them and would be aware of my coming.

  I intended to surprise the old spider. Let him recall how it felt to discover that someone had penetrated his defenses.

  I rode from early morning to late at night, eating dried meat or oatcakes as I rode, and sleeping well off the side of the road. I had not traveled so rough in years, and my aching back each morning reminded me that even when I was a young man, it had been uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I did not stop at any inns nor pause in any of the small towns I passed. A day away from Withywoods, I had donned the humbler garb of a tradesman. I did all I could to keep anyone from remarking on the passage of a lone traveler, let alone recognizing me as Tom Badgerlock.

  I timed my journey so that I arrived at Buckkeep late in the evening. I found a tidy little inn among the outskirts of Buckkeep Town and bought myself a room for the night and stabling for my horse. I ate a fine meal of roast pork, stewed dried apples, and dark bread, and went up to my room.

  When night was full and dark, I left the inn quietly and took a long walk up to Buckkeep Castle. I did not go to any of the gates, but to a very secret entrance that I had discovered as Chade’s apprentice. What had been a fault in the wall had been “repaired” to allow a covert route in and out of the keep. The masking thorn bushes around it were as thick as ever, and both my skin and my jerkin were torn before I reached the actual stone of the wall and squeezed though the deceptively narrow gap there, gaining entrance to Buckkeep.

  But penetrating the outer wall was just the first step. I was inside the walls of the keep but not in the castle itself. This section of the keep’s grounds was reserved for protecting stock should we ever be besieged. During the Red-Ship Wars some animals had always been kept here, but I doubted it had seen much use in recent times. In the darkness behind some empty sheep pens I shed my homespun blouse and loose trousers, and concealed the garments in an unused wooden trough. Beneath them I was dressed in Buckkeep blue, in my old blue Buck guardsman’s uniform. It was a bit snugger about the middle than I recalled it being, and smelled of fleabane and cedar from the chest where I had stored it, but I trusted it would get me past any casual glance.

  Head down and walking slowly as if I were weary or perhaps a bit drunk, I wandered across the yards and in through the kitchen door that led to the guardsmen’s dining area. I felt a strange mixture of emotions at this secretive homecoming. Buckkeep Castle would always be home to me, and the kitchens especially so. So many boyhood memories surged back on the wave of aromas that welcomed me. Ale and smoked meats and fat cheeses, bread baking and hot soup bubbling and beckoning. I nearly yielded to the temptation to go in and sit down and eat. Not for hunger’s sake, but just to taste again the flavors of home.

  Instead I wandered down the stone-flagged corridor, past two storage rooms; just short of the steps to the cellar I entered a certain pantry. There I let my self-discipline slip and helped myself to a short rope of linked sausage before triggering the panel of shelves that accessed the castle’s spy-ways. I pulled it closed behind me and stood for a moment in the utter darkness of those passages.

  I ate a link of the sausage and idly wished there had been time for a tankard of Buckkeep ale to go with it. Then with a sigh I let my feet lead the way through the twisting corridors and narrow stairs that threaded the interior walls of Buckkeep Castle. This was a labyrinth I had known since my childhood. The only surprises I encountered were the few spiderwebs that were a familiar hazard of this maze.

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  I did not go to the secret chambers where Chade had first taught me the assassin’s trade. I knew he no longer lived and slept in that space as he once had. Instead I wormed my way through the narrow space behind the walls on the same level as the King’s bedchamber. I swiftly gained access to Chade’s grand bedchamber via a mirrored panel in his water closet and was a bit surprised that he had not blocked it in some way. I crept silently in, dreading that he would be waiting for me, having somehow divined my plan, but his room was empty and chill, the fire banked low on the hearth. Moving swiftly, I took a gleaming brown acorn from my pocket and left it in the center of his pillow. Then I retreated once more to the spy-labyrinth and sought his old murder laboratory.

  Ah, but how it had changed since my childhood. The floors were swept and mopped clean of dirt and dust. The scarred stone table where we had conducted our experiments when I was a boy was immaculately clear of ingredients and apparatus. All was neatly stowed on shelves. The bowls and glassware had been cleaned and sorted by category. There was a specific place for each mortar and pestle, and for each spoon of wood and iron and brass. There were far fewer scroll racks than I recalled, and the ones that were there were neatly stocked. Another rack held the tools of my erstwhile trade. Small knives with grooved blades, some sheathed and some bare, rested beside neatly packaged and labeled powders and pellets, some soporific and some toxic. Gleaming needles of silve
r and brass were safely thrust through strips of soft leather. Coiled garrotes slumbered like deadly little snakes. Someone with a very methodical mind was in charge of this now. Not Chade. Brilliant and precise as the man was, he had never been tidy. Nor did I see signs of his ongoing scholarship; no tattered old manuscripts awaited translation or recopying. There were no scatters of spoiled pens, no open containers of ink. A sumptuous featherbed covered the old wooden bedstead, and the small fire in the neatly swept hearth burned cleanly. The bed looked as if it was for show rather than something that was regularly used. I wondered who tended these chambers now. Certainly not Thick. The simple little man was old now for one of his kind, and he had never cared for his housekeeping tasks. He would not have supplied a rack of wax tapers, standing tall and straight as ranked soldiers, ready to take their places in the candleholders. I lit two to replace the ones that had almost guttered out in the brass holders on the table.

  I deduced this was Lady Rosemary’s domain now. I settled in her cushioned chair by the hearth after adding two logs to the fire. Little sweet biscuits in a covered bowl and a decanter of wine were on a small table close at hand. I helped myself and then kicked out my feet toward her fire and leaned back. I didn’t care which of them found me here. I had words for both of them. My gaze wandered over the mantel and I almost smiled to see that King Shrewd’s fruit knife was still embedded in the center of it. I wondered if Lady Rosemary knew the tale of how it had come to be there. I wondered if Chade recalled how coldly angry I had been when I drove the blade into the wood. The anger that burned in me now was colder and far more controlled. I’d have my say, and when I had finished, we would come to terms. My terms.

  Chade had always been a night owl. I was resigned to a long wait before he would find my message on his pillow. The watch passed and I dozed in the chair, but lightly. But when I heard the light scuff of slippers on the steps, I knew it was not his stride. I lifted my head and turned my gaze to the concealed stairway. A heavy tapestry draped it to keep out the draft from the maze. I was only mildly surprised when it lifted to reveal the countenance of young FitzVigilant. He was dressed far more simply than the last time I had seen him, in a simple white shirt, blue vest, and black trousers. His soft low shoes whispered his approach. The large silver earrings in his ear had been replaced by two much smaller ones of gold. His tousled hair hinted that perhaps he had risen from his bed to perform his duties here.

 
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