Fools Assassin, p.30Part #1 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
“Uneasy. Not afraid,” I admitted unwillingly. I tried to find the right words but could not. I settled on, “I am … amazed. And a bit unsettled that you can speak so well, and I never guessed you were capable of such thought. It is unnerving, Bee. Still, I love you a lot more than I fear you. And with time, I’ll get used to … how you really are. ”
The little pink head with its haze of blond hair nodded slowly. “I think you can. I’m not sure Nettle could. ”
I found I shared her reservations about that but felt obliged to defend my older daughter. “Well, but it’s not fair that you expect she could. Or even that I could! Why did you hold back? Why not begin talking as you learned to speak rather than keep silent?”
Head still lowered, she lifted one shoulder and shook her head mutely. I had not expected any answer. In truth, I understood the keeping of such secrets. For years in my own childhood, I had hidden the secret of my bastardy from Molly, pretending I was no more than the scribe’s errand boy. Not to deceive her but because I had longed to be so unremarkable. I knew too well that the longer that sort of secret is kept, the harder it is to expose it without seeming deceitful. How could I not have seen this? How could I keep her from the mistakes I had made? I tried to speak to her as a father should.
“Well, it’s an odd secret you’ve kept. And I advise you to surrender it now. You should begin to speak to other people. Not like we are talking now, but with a few words here and there. Naming things you want when you point at them. Then moving on to simple requests. ”
“You want me to practice a new sort of deception,” she said slowly. “You want me to pretend I’m just now learning to speak. ”
And I realized I had sounded more like an assassin’s mentor than a loving father. I was giving her the sort of advice Chade would have given me. I felt uncomfortable at that thought and spoke more firmly because of it. “Well. Yes. I suppose I am. But I think it’s a necessary deception, based on the first one you chose. Why on earth would you pretend that you can barely speak at all? Why did you keep your words so hidden?”
She pulled her knees tighter to her chest, clasped her arms round them, and held herself tight and small. Holding her secret close, I guessed. Doubt dropped the floor of my belly. There was more here that I did not know. I consciously took my eyes off her. Don’t stare at her. She is only nine. How large a secret could such a tiny person conceal? I thought of myself at nine and grew still inside.
She didn’t answer my question. Instead she asked, “How did you do that?”
She rocked slightly, chewing on her lip. “You are holding it in now. Not spilling out everywhere. ”
I rubbed my face and decided to let her lead the conversation, even if she carried me onto painful ground. Let her become accustomed to talking to me … and me to listening to her. “You mean, how sad I’ve been? That I’m not weeping today?”
An impatient shake of her head. “No. I mean everything. ” Again that tilt of her little head and a look from the corners of her eyes.
I considered my words and spoke gently. “You’re going to have to explain better than that. ”
“You … boil. Like the big kettle in the kitchen. When you come near, ideas and images and what you think come out of you like the steam from the pot. I feel your heat and smell what seethes inside you. I try to hold back but it drenches me and scalds me. And then, when my sister was here, suddenly you put a lid on. I could still feel the heat but you kept in the steam and the smells … There! Just now! You made the lid tighter and cooled the heat. ”
She was right. I had. As she had spoken, dread had risen in me. She did not think of the Skill as I did, but the images she used could not apply to anything else. And the moment I realized that she had been privy to my thoughts and emotions, I had slammed my Skill-walls tighter, sealing myself behind them as Verity had taught me so many years ago. Verity had pleaded with me to learn to hold my walls tight because my adolescent dreams of Molly were spilling over into his sleep and infiltrating his own dreams and destroying his rest. And now I walled out my little daughter. I cast my thoughts back over not just that evening, but all the days and nights of the past nine years, wondering what she had heard and seen in her father’s thoughts. I recalled how she had always stiffened when I touched her, and how she averted her eyes from my glance. Even as she did now. I had suspected she disliked me, and it had grieved me. Never had I stopped to think that if she knew all my thoughts about her she had every right to dislike me, the man who had never been content with her, who had always wished his daughter to be someone else.
But now she looked up at me cautiously. For less than a wink, our gazes met. “It’s so much better,” she said quietly. “So much more peaceful when you are contained. ”
“I wasn’t aware that you were … so beset by my, my thinking. I shall try to keep my walls closed when I am around you. ”
“Oh, could you?” she begged, relief evident in her voice. “And Nettle? Can you ask her, also, to close her walls when she comes near me?”
No. I could not. To tell her sister that she must keep her Skill-walls tight when she was around Bee would betray to her how sensitive her sister was to that magic. And I was not prepared for Nettle to wonder, as I did now, just how much ability Bee would have for that Farseer magic. How “useful” might she be? I was suddenly Chade, seeing before me a child, apparently a very young child, but actually years older and Skilled. Rosemary had been an excellent child-spy. But Bee would outshine her as the sun outshines a candle. Walls tight, I did not betray that thought to her. Senseless to make her worry about such things just yet. I would do all the worrying for both of us. I made my voice calm.
“I will speak to Nettle about it, but not just now. Next time she comes to visit us, perhaps. I will have to think how to phrase the request. ” I had no intention of conveying this to Nettle, not until I myself had decided how best to handle it. I was rummaging in my thoughts, trying to decide how best to push my question of why she had concealed her intellect and speaking abilities, when she suddenly stood up. She looked up at me, all big blue eyes, with her little red nightrobe falling down to her slippered feet. My child. My little girl, sleepy and innocent-eyed. My heart swelled with love for her. She was my last vestige of Molly, the vessel that held all the love Molly had poured into her. She was a strange child, and no mistake. But Molly had always been a keen judge of people. I suddenly knew that if she had seen fit to trust her heart to Bee then I need not fear to emulate her. I smiled down at her.
Her eyes widened in surprise. Then she cast her eyes aside from my gaze, but an answering smile blossomed on her face. “I’m sleepy now,” she said quietly. “I’m going to bed. ” She looked toward the darkened doorway outside the circle of firelight and lamplight. She squared her little shoulders, resolving to face the dark.
I lifted the lamp from my desk. “I’ll take you to your bed,” I told her. It suddenly seemed very strange to me that in all nine years of her life, it had always been Molly who put her to bed at night. Molly would bring her to me as I was at my books or writing, and I would say good night, and she would whisk the child away. Often Molly, too, had gone to bed without me, knowing I would join her as soon as I had trapped my thoughts on paper. Why, I suddenly wondered, had I wasted all those hours I could have spent with her? Why hadn’t I gone with them, to listen to a bedtime story or nursery song? To hold Molly as she fell asleep in my arms?
Grief choked me so I could not speak. Without a word, I followed my daughter as she led the way through the paneled halls of her grandparents’ home. We passed portraits of our ancestors, and tapestries, and mounted arms. Her small slippers whispered on the grand stair as we mounted to the second floor. These corridors were chill and she wrapped her little arms around herself and shivered as she walked, bereft of a mother’s embrace now.
I set my lamp on a table by her canopied bed and went to the hearth to build her fire up again for her. She stood silently watching me. When I was sure the logs were catching well, I turned back to her. She nodded grave thanks and then stepped on a low stool and clambered up onto the tall bed. She had finally outgrown the small one we’d had made for her. But this one was still far larger than she needed. She pulled off her slippers and let them fall over the side of the bed. I saw her shiver as she crawled between the chill white sheets. She reminded me of a small puppy trying to find comfort in a big dog’s kennel. I moved to her bedside and tucked the blankets in well around her.
“It will warm up soon enough,” I comforted her.
“I know. ” Her blue gaze roamed the room, and for the first time it struck me how strange this world might look to her. The room was immense in comparison with her, everything sized for the benefit of a grown man. Could she even see out of her windows when she stood by them? Open the heavy cedar lid of her blanket chest? I suddenly remembered my first night in my bedchamber at Buckkeep Castle after years of sleeping cozy in Burrich’s chamber in the lofts above the stables. At least the tapestries here were all of flowers and birds, with no golden-eyed Elderlings staring down at an awestruck child who was trying to fall asleep. Still, I saw a dozen changes that needed to be made in the room, changes that would have been wrought years ago by a father with any sensitivity. Shame flooded me. It felt wrong to leave her alone in such a large and empty space.
I stood over her in the darkness. I promised myself I would do better. I reached to smooth the pale stubble on her skull. She curled away from my touch. “No, please,” she whispered into the darkness, looking away from me. It was a knife to my heart, a stab I well deserved. I drew back my hand, did not stoop for the kiss I had intended to bestow on her. I held back my sigh.
“Very well. Good night, Bee. ”
I took up my lamp and was halfway to the door when she asked timidly, “Can you leave a short candle burning? Mama always left me one candle. ”
I immediately knew what she meant. Molly often lit a small fat candle by our bedside, one that scented the room as she drifted off to sleep. I could not recall how many times I had come to our bed to find her deep in slumber and the last bit of flame dancing on the foundering wick. A pottery saucer on Bee’s bedside table awaited such a candle. I opened the cupboard beneath the table and found ranks and rows of such candles. Their sweet fragrances drifted out to me as if Molly herself had entered the room. I chose lavender for its restfulness. I lit the candle from my lamp and set it in its place. I drew the bed’s draperies closed, imagining how the dancing candlelight would seep through the hangings to softly illuminate the enclosed space.
“Good night,” I said again, taking up my lamp.
I started for the door, and her whisper reached me softly as blown thistledown. “Mama always sang a song. ”
“A song?” I asked stupidly.
“You don’t know any,” she surmised. I heard her turn away from me.
I spoke to the curtains. “Actually, I do. ” Obtusely, it was “Crossfire’s Coterie” that leapt to the forefront of my mind, a martial and tragic tale completely inappropriate for a child’s bedtime. I thought of others I knew, the learning tunes and rhymes I had acquired growing up. “The Poisoner’s Prayer,” a list of deadly herbs. “Blood Points,” a musical recitation of where to stab a man to make the blood leap. Perhaps not for bedtime.
She whispered again, “Do you know ‘The Twelve Healing Herbs’?”
“I do. ” Burrich had taught it to me, as well as Lady Patience hammering it into my head. I cleared my throat. When had I last sung a song when mine was the only lifted voice? A lifetime ago. I drew a breath and suddenly changed my mind. “Here’s a song I learned when I was much younger than you are now. It’s about horses, and choosing a good one. ” I cleared my throat again and found the note.
“One white hoof, buy him.
Two white hooves, try him.
Three white hooves, think for a day.
Four white hooves, turn him away. ”
A brief silence greeted my effort. Then, “That seems cruel. Because his hooves are white, you turn him away?”
I smiled into darkness, and remembered Burrich’s answer. “Because his hooves are soft. Sometimes. White hooves can be softer than black hooves. You don’t want to buy a horse whose hooves will split easily. The rule isn’t always true, but it reminds you to check the hooves of a horse you are thinking of buying. ”
“Oh. ” A pause. “Sing it again, please. ”
And I did. Four more times, until my listener did not request an encore. I took my lamp and walked softly to the door. The fragrance of lavender and soft candlelight remained as I stepped out into the corridor. I looked back at the draped bed, so large in comparison with the very small person who slept there. So small, with only me to protect her. Then I eased the door closed behind me and sought my own chill and empty bedchamber.
The next morning I woke at dawn. I lay still, looking up at the shadowy corners of the bedchamber ceiling. I had slept but a few hours, and yet sleep had deserted me. There was something.
I took in a sudden breath. It happened, not often, that I heard my wolf speak in my mind as clearly as if he still lived. It was a Wit phenomenon, something that happened to people who had been so long partnered with an animal that when it died, some influence lingered. It was close to a score of years since I had lost Nighteyes, and yet in that instant he was at my side, and I felt the nudge as clearly as if it were a cold nose intruding under the blankets. I sat up. “It’s barely dawn,” I grumbled, but I swung my legs over the edge of the bed.
I found a clean tunic and leggings and dressed. The view from my window showed me a beautiful summer day. I let the curtains drop back into place and then took a deep breath. Life wasn’t about me anymore, I discovered. It surprised me to discover that it had been so. Molly, I thought to myself. I had believed that I spoiled her with my attentions and gifts. Actually, she was the one who had spoiled me, allowing me to wake in the morning and think first of what I needed to do that day, rather than what someone else needed done.
The wolf in me had been correct. When I tapped softly on Bee’s door and then entered at her muffled invitation, I found her awake and considering a variety of garments she had taken from her little clothing chest. Her blond hair stuck up in tufts. “Do you need any help with that?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “Not with clothes. But Mama always stood on the other side of the bed as we made it each morning. I’ve tried, but it doesn’t go straight for me. ”
I looked at her effort. It had probably been like trying to raise canvas on a ship by herself. “Well, I know how to do that,” I told her. “I’ll make the bed for you. ”
“We are supposed to do it together,” she rebuked me. She took a deep breath and squared her little shoulders. “Mama told me that I must always be able to take care of myself, for few in this world will make allowances that I am small. ”
Yes. Molly would have thought of that.
“Then let’s make it together,” I offered, and followed her very precise directions to do so. I did not tell her that I could simply tell one of the housemaids that this was now her task. What Molly had carefully built in our small daughter, I would not tear down.
She shooed me out of the room while she dressed herself. I was standing outside her door, waiting for her, when I heard the tap of Nettle’s boots on the stone-flagged floor. She halted in front of me, and it was not flattering that she was obviously startled to se
“I did brush my hair,” she told me as if I had asked. “But it’s too short to lie flat. ”
“Mine, too,” I assured her. Not that I had even attempted to make it do so.
She looked up at me and asked, “Does it make it hard to trim your beard, too?”
Nettle laughed, as much to hear her sister speak as to see me uncomfortable.
“No. It does not,” I admitted gravely. “I’ve just neglected it. ”
“I’ll help you before I go,” Nettle offered, and I wondered how she knew it was a task Molly had often undertaken.
Bee looked up at me solemnly. She shook her head slowly. “There’s no reason for your beard anymore. You should just shave it off. ”
That gave me a twinge. How had she known? Had Molly told her that I had grown it in an attempt to look closer to my true years? “Perhaps later. But now, we should go down to breakfast, for your sister wishes to make an early start. ”
Bee walked between us, and at table she essayed a few words to the staff, but mostly muttered to her plate. Still, it was a start, and I think even Nettle saw the wisdom of letting her reveal herself slowly.
The farewell was hard for all of us. Bee endured a hug from Nettle, but I would have held my elder daughter longer in my arms if she would have allowed it. Her eyes were bright as she bid us farewell, and I promised that she would hear from me regularly. She looked down at Bee and charged her to “Learn some letters, and write to me, little Bee. I expect you to try as hard as your papa to make this work. ” It was well for me that Nettle did not see the guilty look Bee and I exchanged behind her back.
Riddle had stood silent and watched us make our partings. He approached me then with a grave face, and I thought he would offer me awkward words. Instead he suddenly engulfed me in a hug that nearly cracked my ribs. “Be brave,” he said by my ear, and then released me, walked to his horse, and mounted, and they all rode away.
We stood in the carriageway of Withywoods and watched until Nettle and her party were out of sight. A time longer we stood there. Steward Revel and several of the other servants had turned out to bid Nettle farewell. They ebbed away from us until only Bee and I were left standing there. Birds called from the woodland. A light morning breeze stirred the leaves of the white paper birches that lined the carriageway. After a time Bee ventured a single word. “Well. ”
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