Fools assassin, p.31
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       Fools Assassin, p.31

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

  “Yes. ” I looked down at her. What was I to do with this tiny girl? I cleared my throat. “I usually begin my rounds with a walk through the stables. ”

  She looked up at me and then quickly away. I knew she feared the large animals of the manor. Would she go with me? I could scarcely blame her if she refused. But I waited. After a moment, the small blond head nodded once.

  And so we began a new pattern that day. I wished I could carry her but knew that she dreaded my touch, and why. And so she trotted at my heels and I walked more sedately so she could keep up with me. We walked the stables and conferred with Tallerman. He was visibly relieved to see the guests departed and his workload returned to normal. Lin the shepherd glanced once at my small follower and then spoke to me while his dog gravely poked Bee under the chin with her nose until Bee petted her.

  The vineyard required a horseback trip. When I told Bee this, she seemed to consider it for a longer time before informing me, “I have not checked on my mother’s beehives for some days. I do have tasks of my own, you know. ”

  “I don’t know how to help you with the hives,” I told her.

  She lifted her head and again squared her small shoulders. “I know what must be done. And I’m stronger than I look,” she told me.

  And so we parted, but came back together for a noon meal. I reported to her that the grapes had an excellent set, and that I had seen many of her bees busy at their work. She nodded gravely to that and said that all had appeared well with the hives.

  After our meal I retreated to the Withywoods study to go over the long-neglected accounts. There was a list from Steward Revel there of maintenance projects for Withywoods that he judged too important to ignore. There were small notes next to some of the suggestions, in Molly’s handwriting. I couldn’t bear to look at it. She’d put it there at least two months ago, and I had promised her, promised her that we’d get the most pressing work under way this summer. But I hadn’t. I’d set it aside, confident that she would nag me into action when it became urgent.

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  Well, she wouldn’t. Not ever again.

  There were other messages on my desk, accounts that needed to be paid for supplies brought in from the outlying farms. There was a lot of tallying to do for men who had worked the hayfields in exchange for a share. Here was a note that we’d have to hire more workers for the grape harvest, and if we wanted good ones, we’d best secure them now. Everything needed to be done now.

  And another list, poorly written and spelled worse, of various foodstuffs. I stared at it for a time. I must have looked perplexed because Bee wandered over to peer past my elbow at it. “Oh. Cook Nutmeg wrote that, I think. She always asked Mama what meals she would like for the week to come, so Cook could be sure she had all she needed on hand for them. Mama used to write the list for her to send to town. ”

  “I see. And this?”

  She scowled at it for a minute. “I’m not sure. I think that word is meant to be ‘wool. ’ And that might be ‘cobbler. ’ Mama was talking of winter woolens for the help, and new boots for you and me. ”

  “But it’s summer!”

  She cocked her head at me. “It’s like the garden, Papa. You have to plan now what you want to have three months from now. ”

  “I suppose. ” I stared at the unintelligible scribbling, wondering if I could somehow persuade Revel to translate and assume command of whatever this was. It was suddenly all too much. I set it down and pushed away from the desk. “We should go look at the apple trees. ”

  And so we did, until evening.

  Day by aching day, we groped toward a routine. We made our needless daily inspection of the stables, the sheep pens, and the grapes. I did not throw myself into the work; I did not have the focus—but the accounts did not go too late, and Revel seemed almost relieved to take up the meal planning. I didn’t care what he put before me; eating had become a task to accomplish. Sleep evaded me, only to ambush me at my desk in the middle of the afternoon. More and more often Bee followed me to my private study in the evenings, where she amused herself by pretending to read my discarded papers before drawing lavish illustrations on the backs of them. We talked little, even when we played games together. Most evenings ended with her asleep on the floor. I would carry her back to her bed, tumble her into it, and then return to my study. I let go of far too many things. I felt sometimes as if we were both waiting for something.

  The evening that I realized I was waiting for Molly to come back, I put my head down on my arms and wept useless bitter tears. I only came back to myself when I felt a soft hand patting my shoulder and heard her voice saying, “It can’t be changed, dear. It can’t be changed. You must let go of the past. ”

  I lifted my head and looked at my little daughter. I had thought her asleep on the hearth. It was the first time she had touched me of her own volition. Her eyes were such a pale blue, like Kettricken’s, and sometimes she did seem—not blind, but as if she looked past me into another place. Her words were not ones I would have expected from a child. They were Molly’s words, the words she would have spoken to me to comfort me. My little child, trying to be strong for me. I blinked my eyes clear of tears, cleared my throat, and asked her, “Would you like to learn how to play Stones?”

  “Of course,” she said, and even though I knew she didn’t mean it, I taught her that night and we played until it was almost morning. We both slept in until nearly noon the next day.

  The message came, delivered in the usual way, as autumn was winding to a close. When I sat down at the breakfast table with Bee, there was a fat brown acorn with two oak leaves still attached to it on the table. Once, I had carved such a motif on the top of a little box where I kept my poisons, the kit of my trade as an assassin. The box was long gone, but the meaning was the same. Chade wished to meet with me. I scowled at the acorn. For as long as I’d lived at Withywoods, he’d been able to do this. No one on the staff would admit to putting the acorn on the table, nor to leaving a door unbarred or a window unlatched. Yet there it was, a reminder from my old mentor that no matter how clever and wary I thought myself, he could still steal through my defenses if he wished to. He’d be waiting for me by evening at an inn called the Oaken Staff at a crossroads near Gallows Hill. That was a two-hour ride away. Which meant that if I kept the rendezvous, I would be very late returning, perhaps not getting back until dawn if this was one of Chade’s convoluted discussions. Whatever it was, he was not going to Skill to me about it. That meant no one in the coterie knew of it. It was another of his damned secrets, then.

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  Bee watched me handling the acorn. When I set it back on the table, she picked it up to examine it. She had begun to use small phrases to the staff: “Please, more bread. ” Or a simple “Good morning. ” Her childish lisp was not entirely pretense, but I was not sure if I felt pride or dismay at how polished an actress she was. In the last few evenings, we had played our memory game as well as Stones, and at both she seemed incredibly gifted. I tutted at my fatherly pride, reminding myself that every parent must think his child the cleverest and prettiest. She had shown me a page from an herbal that she had copied out with painstaking care at my urgent request. She had her mother’s gift for illustration. And she had written a brief note to Nettle, scarcely blotched at all and in a hand so like my own that I wondered if her sister would deem it counterfeit. Our last few weeks together had been like balm on a wound. Briefly, it eased the aching.

  But Chade’s summons I could not ignore. The only times when he went back to the cryptic communications of my boyhood were when he had something of the utmost delicacy to broach to me. Was it private to him, or too dangerous to share? My heart sank at the thought. Now what? What was happening at Buckkeep Castle that was worthy of this secret liaison? What was he trying to drag me into?

  And what arrangements could I make for Bee that evening? If I went to meet Chade, I wo
uld not be there to see her to bed that night. We had begun to build something, we two, and I did not want to neglect it. As Nettle had warned me, caring for the child full-time was not as easy as one might think it, but neither was it as hard as she had painted it. I was enjoying my daughter, even when we both were in the same room but quiet and busy at our own tasks. Her latest fancy was a set of brushes and some paints. Her copies of illustrations were painstaking and accurate. She sighed over them, but since I had suggested that Nettle needed to see her abilities, she did them. I was more charmed by the peculiar and childish images she created when left alone with brushes and inks. She had painted a small man with his cheeks puffed as if blowing, and told me that he breathed out fog. She had never seen the ocean or a ship, but had drawn a little boat towed through the waves by water snakes. Another was a row of flowers with tiny faces. She showed me such work shyly, and I sensed she was letting me into her world. I didn’t want to leave her for a housemaid to tuck into bed. Nor would I drag her out and into the night with me. An autumn storm was threatening.

  Bee was looking at me curiously as I pondered my lack of choices. “What’s this?” she piped in her childish voice, and held up the acorn.

  “An acorn. A seed from an oak tree. ”

  “I know that!” she said, as if amazed I could think her so ignorant. She silenced herself hastily. Tavia had come out of the kitchen with a steaming kettle of porridge. She set it down on the table and ladled two generous servings into our bowls. A pitcher of cream and a pot of honey were already on the table, beside a loaf of freshly baked dark bread. One of the younger kitchen girls, Elm, followed her with a bowl of butter and a dish of stewed prunes. She did not look at Bee, I noticed. I marked, too, how Bee stiffened slightly and did not breathe as the girl passed behind her chair. I nodded my thanks to Tavia and waited until she had whisked herself and her daughter back to the kitchen before I spoke.

  “I have to go on a brief trip this evening. I may be gone all night. ”

  I felt Bee’s eyes flicker over my face, trying to read what I was thinking. It was a new habit she had. She still did not meet my gaze, but sometimes I felt her looking at me. She was relieved that I now attempted to keep my Skill contained at all times, but I think it also made me more mysterious to her. I had to wonder how much she had read from me in the first nine years of her life. The thought was so saddening that I pushed it aside. She had not spoken. “Shall I ask Tavia to put you to bed tonight?”

  She shook her head briskly.

  “Mild, then?” The other kitchenmaid was younger, in her twenties. Perhaps she would suit Bee better.

  Bee lowered her eyes to her porridge and shook her head more slowly. Well, that canceled both of my easy solutions, unless I simply told her she’d have to endure whatever arrangements I could make. I wasn’t ready to be so firm with her yet. I wondered if I ever would be, and then chided myself to think that I might be the sort of father who spoiled a child by indulging her will. I would think of something, I promised myself, and pushed the matter from my mind for the time being.

  Despite Chade’s visit looming before me, I went about my regular tasks for the day. The needs of a manor stop for nothing, not even a death. I was swiftly discovering just how many unseen parts there were to managing a household, even with Revel stepping up to much of it. Molly had always been the one to coordinate with him. Together they had discussed meals and seasonal tasks, routine maintenance, hiring of help. It had all been invisible to me, and now the man and his insistence that we meet each afternoon to discuss the day’s needs nearly drove me mad. He was a pleasant enough fellow and good at what he did, but every time he tapped at my study door it was a reminder that Molly was not there to intercept him. Twice he had brought up maintenance that should be done before winter. The carefully detailed notes he gave me, with suggestions as to tradesmen and material and dates, overwhelmed me. It was all stacked on top of my ordinary work. Today I was already late paying the staff, and though they had seemed understanding of my grief, I knew that their lives went on. How to manage? Hire yet another person to nag me through the day? I dreaded trying to find someone trustworthy, and my heart sank even deeper as I realized that I still needed to find a nanny or tutor for Bee as well. I wondered if FitzVigilant was ready yet, and then realized that for a little girl, a woman would be more appropriate. Someone who could sleep in the unused servant’s chamber adjacent to her own. Someone who would move from being a nanny to a maid as Bee grew. My woe deepened at the thought of bringing a woman into her life who would do some of what her mother had done for her. I knew I must. Although Chade’s visit would be the first task to take me from her side, it would not be the last.

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  I had no idea where to begin looking for a servant who could fulfill such a demanding role.

  I was silent as I ate, pondering my dilemma, and silent when I rose. For neither the first nor the last time I considered the strange isolation my peculiar station in life had conferred on me. To the landholders and gentry around Buckkeep, Molly and I had been neither aristocracy nor common folk, but creatures trapped between classes. The men who worked for me as groundskeepers and ostlers spoke of me well and appreciated my firsthand knowledge of their tasks, but they did not consider me a friend. And those nobles with holdings within an easy ride had known us as Holder Tom Badgerlock and Lady Molly. To their eyes Molly had been elevated only as recognition from the crown for Burrich’s services. They had been pleasant enough when we encountered them, but none had extended invitations to socialize and Molly had wisely held back from pressing the matter. We’d had each other for daily company, and the irregular invasions of our relatives to inject both chaos and merriment into our lives. It had been enough for us both.

  But now that she was gone I looked around myself and perceived how solitary my life at Withywoods was without her. Our children had gone back to their own lives and left me here alone. All save one. I glanced down at her. It wasn’t right for a child to grow up so alone.

  Bee’s little slippers were close to silent as she ghosted along behind me through the house. I glanced back at her and said, “I have to go out to the stables. And a storm is waiting. Let’s get you into some warm clothes. ”

  “I can do that myself,” she insisted softly.

  “Can you reach everything?” I frowned to myself. Were her winter things still stored in a chest somewhere? Would they still fit her?

  She thought about it for a moment, and then nodded consideringly. She tilted her head up, and I felt her gaze brush across me. “I’m not as little as I look. I’m nine. ”

  “Very well. I’ll wait for you in my private study. ”

  She bobbed her head in grave acknowledgment and I watched her hasten up the stairs. It was a climb for her, a reach for every step. I tried to imagine being so small in a world scaled for adults, and could not. She was a very capable child, I thought to myself, and wondered if I was underestimating her. There was a danger in asking too much of a child, but the danger of asking too little was almost equal. Nonetheless, provision should be made for her, lest she need me and I not be there to protect her. I reached a decision.

  When she came into my study, she was wearing her boots and warm leggings, with her winter cloak slung over her arm. Her hair was brushed back untidily. I could tell she had done it herself and did not criticize it. She looked around the room, obviously wondering why we were there so early in the day. The room was smaller than the formal study, but pleasant enough. The walls were rich dark wood, and the hearth was built of big flat river stones. It was a comfortable room, a man’s retreat, but that was not why I had chosen it for my den. I considered and hesitated. But she was nine. The same age I had been when Buckkeep Castle’s secret had been shared with me.

  “Please close the door behind you,” I told her as she came in.

  She did so, and then looked past my shoulder, wondering at my odd request. “I thought w
e were going out. ”

  “We are. But not right away. I want to show you something. And see if you can do it. But first I have to explain it. Sit down, please. ”

  She climbed up to sit on one of the cushioned chairs and perched there, watching me but not meeting my eyes. “This is a secret,” I warned her. “It’s a secret only for you and me. Patience showed it to your mother and me when we first came here. Patience is gone, and now Molly is gone, too. ” I waited, swallowed, and went on. “So only I know about this now. And soon you will, too. It’s not written down anywhere, and it must never be put on paper. You cannot show it to anyone else. Do you understand?”

  For a time she was very still. Then she nodded slowly.

  I got up from my seat behind the desk, went to the door, and made sure it was latched. “This door has to be shut completely,” I told her. I touched the hinges of the massive door. “Look here. This door has four hinges. Two at the top, and two closer to the bottom. They all look just the same. ”

  I waited and again she nodded gravely.

  “This one, not the lowest one, but this one above it is false. When you pull the pin out of the top of this hinge, it becomes a handle. See? Then you can do this. ” I pulled the brass pin out, took hold of the false hinge and pulled on it. A tall narrow door disguised as a wood wall panel swung open. Spiderwebs stretched and broke as I pulled it open. Darkness breathed out. I glanced back at Bee. Her attention was absolute, her lower lip caught between her small perfect teeth. “It’s a secret passageway. ”

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  “Yes?” she queried, and I realized I was telling her the obvious. I scratched my cheek and felt how deep my beard had grown. I’d still not trimmed it, I suddenly realized, and Molly had not rebuked me. All thoughts fled my mind for a moment as a wave of loss drenched and drowned me again.

 
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