Fools assassin, p.32
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       Fools Assassin, p.32

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

  “Papa?” Bee tugged at my shirt cuff.

  “I’m sorry,” I said, and drew breath again.

  “I’m sorry, too,” she said. She did not take my hand, but held on to my cuff. I had not even been aware of her getting down from the chair or crossing the room to me. She cleared her little throat, and I became aware of the glistening tracks on her cheeks. I tightened my Skill-walls, and she nodded a silent thanks to me. In a low voice she asked me, “Where does it go?”

  And so, together, we crested that wave of sorrow and pushed on.

  “It goes to a little room above and to the left of the hearth. There’s a tiny peephole there, so someone could sit there and watch people come and go and talk in this room. ” I rubbed my eyes. “And from that little room, there is a narrow stair that goes to a very low crawlway. And it goes to other little spy-rooms in other parts of the house. ” I swallowed and my voice became almost normal as I added, “I think it’s a Farseer obsession. We seem to like spyholes and secret places in our homes. ”

  She nodded, staring past me at the door. The broken cobwebs stirred in a slight draft. A smile dawned on her face and she actually clasped her little hands together under her chin. “I love it! Is it for me?”

  It was the last reaction I could have predicted from her. I found my smile answering hers. “It is now,” I told her. “There are two other ways to get into it. One from my bedroom. And another from a pantry. Those are both difficult to open, mostly because they haven’t been used in a very, very long time. This one is easier. But it, too, hasn’t been used in a long time. So it will be full of cobwebs and dust, and mice and spiders. ”

  She had advanced to the edge of the passageway. She flapped a hand through the dangling webs and then shook her fingers free of the rags, undaunted by small things with many legs. A glance back in my direction. “Can I go in now? Can I take a lamp?”

  “I suppose so. ” Her enthusiasm had caught me off guard. I had thought only to seed an idea with her today, to show her a place to retreat to if she were ever in danger and I was not around to protect her. I shot the concealed bolts on the study doors so that no one could enter. I took the lamp from my desk. Then I shut the door to the passage and dropped the hinge pin back into its place. “You try to open it. ”

  The pin was stubborn and it took some tugging before she freed it. “We can oil that,” she said breathlessly, and then stood up to pull the panel open. She glanced back at me. “Can I take the lamp and go first?”

  If she fell and dropped the lamp, the spilled oil and flame would set all of Withywoods afire. “Be careful,” I told her as I handed it to her. “Use both hands. And don’t fall. ”

  “I won’t,” she replied, but as soon as it was in her hands, I doubted my wisdom in entrusting it to her. She was so obviously excited and focused only on exploring. She walked unhesitatingly into the narrow dark corridor. I stooped and followed her.

  The spy-passages of Withywoods were not nearly as elaborate as the ones that threaded Buckkeep Castle. I think if they had been my father’s handiwork, he would have made them for a taller man. I suspected they dated back to the first rebuilding of the house, when they had added the south wing. I’d often wondered if there were more of them, the secret of opening the doors lost in the process of the house changing inhabitants.

  The passage had a short landing and then a steep stair. At the top of the stair there was a landing and a sharp turn to the left. There the passage became slightly wider. It went up six more steps and then was flat until it reached the area beside the hearth. I could not stand straight in the little compartment, but someone had been comfortable there once. There was a short sturdy stool for him to perch on while he did his spying, a little cabinet of dark wood, its doors securely closed, and a small shelf where Bee set down her lamp. Her instinct was correct. I noticed now the little guard around the peephole that would keep the lamplight from being visible. She sat down on the stool without dusting it off, leaned forward to peer into my study, then leaned back and proclaimed, “I love it. It fits me perfectly. Oh, Papa, thank you!”

  She stood up and went to the little cupboard, reaching the handle easily. She peered inside. “Look! Here’s an inkpot! It’s all dried up, but I could put ink in it. And here’s an old quill pen, all eaten away to its spine. I’ll need a fresh one. Look! The shelf folds down and now it’s a little table for writing! How clever! Is it truly all for me?”

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  What had probably been a rather cramped space even for a small spy did fit her perfectly. The space I had thought of as an emergency retreat for her, she saw as a refuge, perhaps even a playroom.

  “It’s a safe place for you. A place to come and hide if you feel you are in danger and you can’t get to me. Or if I tell you there is danger and you must run and hide. ”

  She looked at me earnestly, not meeting my eyes, but her pale gaze wandering over my face. “I see. Of course. Well, then, I shall need candles, and a tinderbox. And something to keep water in, and something with a tight lid for keeping hard bread. So that I shall not be hungry if I have to hide for quite a long time. And a cushion and a blanket against the chill. And perhaps a few books. ”

  I stared at her, aghast. “No! No, Bee, I’d never leave you hidden here for days at a time! Wait … a few books? Do you truly read that well?”

  The expression on her face would not have been as surprised if I’d asked her if she could breathe. “Of course. Can’t everyone?”

  “No. Generally, one has to be taught to read. I know your mother showed you letters, but I didn’t think …” I stared at her in amazement. I had watched her at play with her pen and her book, thinking that she did no more than practice random letters. The note she had written to her sister had been a simple one, just a few lines. I now recalled she had asked for paper so she could write down her dreams; I thought she had meant her odd drawings. I quelled my sudden desire to know what she wrote, to see what she dreamed. I would wait until she offered to share it with me.

  “Mama read to me. Her big beautiful book about herbs and flowers, the one Lady Patience gave her. She read it very slowly, pointing at each word. She had told me the letters and the sounds. So I learned. ”

  Molly had come to reading late, and mastered it with great difficulty. And I knew immediately the book she had read to Bee, one that had not pages of paper, but narrow slabs of wood with the words and the illustrations engraved in them, and the herbs and flowers carved and then painted in their correct colors. Patience had treasured that gift from me. And Molly had taught our daughter to read from it.

  “Papa?”

  I had been woolgathering. I looked down at her.

  “What happened to Lady Patience? Mama told me many stories about her, but never the end of her story. ”

  “The end of her story. ” I had been there the day my stepmother’s story had ended. I thought of it now, and it suddenly took on a completely different significance to me. I cleared my throat. “Well. It was a day in early spring. The plum trees had begun to waken from the winter, and Lady Patience wanted them pruned before the buds burst into flowers. She was quite an old lady by then, but still very fussy about her gardens. So she insisted on leaning out an upper window and shouting instructions to the workers pruning her trees. ”

  I had to smile at the memory. Bee was almost looking at me, her face intent with interest, her brow wrinkled. “Did she fall out the window?”

  “No. For a wonder, no, she didn’t fall. But she wasn’t happy with how they were doing the pruning. So she declared that she was going out to make them do it as she wished, and to bring back some of the trimmings to force into bloom for the table. I offered to go fetch her some, but no, she was off to her room and then came clumping back down in her boots and a heavy wool cloak and out she went. ” I paused. I remembered it all so clearly. The blue sky, the blustery wind, and Patience’s eyes snapping with indignation that the orchard
crew was ignoring her.

  “Then what?”

  “She was gone for a little while. I was in the morning room when I heard the door slam. She was calling for me to come and take some of the cuttings. I stepped out in the hall, and here she came with a great armful of them, dropping twigs and bits of moss as she came. I was going to take them from her when she suddenly stopped where she was. She stared, and her mouth fell open, and her cheeks that were pink with cold went even pinker. Then she shouted, ‘Chivalry! There you are!’ And she flung up her arms, and the branches went everywhere. She opened her arms wide and took two running steps past me. And then she fell. ”

  Tears suddenly prickled my eyes. I blinked but could not stop them.

  “And she was dead,” Bee whispered.

  “Yes,” I said hoarsely. I recalled the loose weight of her as I gathered her and turned her faceup in my arms. She was dead and staring, but smiling still. Smiling.

  “She thought you were her dead husband when she saw you. ”

  “No. ” I shook my head. “She didn’t look at me. She was looking past me, down the hallway behind me. I don’t know what she saw. ”

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  “She saw him,” Bee decided with great satisfaction. She nodded to herself. “He came to get her at last. It’s a good end to her story. May I keep her book up here, the one of herbs?”

  I wondered if Molly would come to get me someday. A fluttering of hope rose in me. Then I came back to myself, to the little room and my daughter sitting at the folded-down desktop. “You could keep books up here if you wish. You may keep anything here that you want. You may have candles and a tinderbox, if you promise to be very careful with them. But you must remember, this room and its entrance are a secret, one that is not to be shared with anyone. Only you and I know that it exists. It’s important that it stays our secret. ”

  She nodded gravely. “Can you show me where the other passage goes, the one we passed, and how to open the other doors?”

  “Perhaps tomorrow. Right now, we must close it up snug, and then go see the man who takes care of the sheep. ”

  “Lin,” she reminded me casually. “Shepherd Lin takes care of the sheep. ”

  “Yes. Lin. We need to talk to him. ” An idea blossomed in my mind. “He has a son named Boj, who has a wife and a little girl at his house. Perhaps you would like to meet them?”

  “No. Thank you. ”

  Her crisp reply killed that hope. I knew there would be more to that story. I waited in patient silence as she took up our lamp and led us down the narrow stair. She paused hopefully at the intersection to the other passage, lifting her lamp to peer into the darkness, but then with a short sigh led us back down to my study. I held the lamp as she closed the panel and secured it. Then I blew out the lamp and drew open the heavy curtains to let in the gray light. It was raining. I blinked as my eyes adjusted and realized we must have had a frost in the night. The leaves had begun to change, with the edges and veins of the birch leaves turning gold. Winter was drawing closer. I still hadn’t spoken.

  “Other children don’t like me. I make them uncomfortable. They think I’m a tiny child dressed up as a girl, and then, when I can do things, like pare apples with a sharp knife, they think … I don’t know what they think. But when I go into the kitchen, Tavia’s sons would go out. They used to come to work with her every day. They don’t anymore. ” She looked away from me. “Elm and Lea, the kitchen girls, hate me. ”

  “Oh, Bee, they don’t hate you! They hardly know you. And Tavia’s sons are of an age where they go with their father now, to learn what he does all day. It’s not you, Bee. ” I was looking down at my small daughter with a sympathetic smile. She glanced up at me and, for the instant that our eyes met, the blue anger in hers burned me.

  She looked down at the floor, her whole body stiff. “Perhaps I shall stay in out of the rain today,” she said in an icy little voice. “It might be a good day to stay by myself. ”

  “Bee,” I said, but before I could go on that fury was flashed at me again.

  “I hate it when you lie. You know that other children will fear me. And I know when they hate me. It’s not something I pretend. It’s real. Don’t lie to me to make me think that I’m the one who is judging them badly. Lies are bad, no matter who tells them. Mama put up with it from you, but I shan’t. ” She folded her arms across her chest and stood staring defiantly at my knees.

  “Bee! I am your father. You cannot speak to me like that!”

  “If I cannot be honest with you, I shall not speak to you at all. ” All the force of her will was behind her words. I knew that she was completely capable of resuming her long silence. The thought of being deprived of the only companionship I’d found since Molly’s death struck me so deep a blow that I immediately recognized how close a bond I was forming with my daughter. The second bolt of lightning was how dangerous it would be to both of us if I let my need for her company overcome my duty to be her parent.

  “You can be honest with me and still respect me. As I can with you. You are different, Bee. It will make some parts of your life very difficult. But if you always fall back on your differences to explain everything you dislike about the world, you will fall into self-pity. I’ve no doubt that you did make Tavia’s boys uneasy. But I also know that neither one of them liked working in the kitchens, and so their father took them down to the mill, to see if that suited them better. It is not always all about you. Sometimes you are just one factor. ”

  She lowered her eyes to the floor. She did not uncross her arms.

  “Get your cloak on. We’re going down to see Lin. ” I gave the order confidently, holding in my anguish over what I would do if she refused to obey. When Starling had given Hap to me he’d led such a life of privation that he was pathetically grateful to sleep inside and be given food. He’d been well past ten before we’d had any confrontations about my authority. The thought of physically disciplining a creature as small as Bee filled me with revulsion. Yet I knew I had to win this battle.

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  I concealed my relief when she retrieved her cloak and put it on. I didn’t say anything to nettle her pride as we left the study and went out onto the grounds. I did shorten my stride as we walked out to the pastures and the sheds. She still had to trot to keep up with me.

  Lin was waiting for me. He showed me three sheep that he’d isolated from the flock after they’d developed a rash that had them rubbing themselves raw on trees and fence posts. I knew little of sheep, but Lin had been tending them since he was a youth, and his hair was now as gray as most of his woolly charges. So I listened, and nodded, and asked him to keep me informed if any more of the ewes became infected. As we spoke, his eyes wandered from me to my small charge and then back again. Bee, perhaps still smarting from being corrected, stood small and stiff and silent throughout our conversation. Lin’s dog Daisy wandered over to inspect her. When Bee stepped back at her approach, she wagged her tail appreciatively and her tongue lolled with dog laughter. So easy to herd. I chose to ignore them as Daisy backed my daughter into a corner and then prodded her with a nose, her tail wagging all the while. Lin glanced at them apprehensively, but I walked over to a ewe and asked him how old she was. Distracted, he came to me. I asked if mites might be causing the irritation, making Lin furrow his brow and go down to part the sheep’s wool and look for insects.

  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bee reach out to fondle one of the dog’s silky little ears. Daisy sat down and leaned against her. Bee buried her chilled hands into the herd dog’s thick golden ruff and I saw suddenly that she and the dog were easy and familiar with each other. Her earlier backing away from the dog had not been apprehension, but an invitation to their game. I listened to Lin recount the ewe’s earlier symptoms with only half my attention.

  When Lin was satisfied that I’d heard his worries and had confidence in what he was doing, our meeti
ng was over. I’d never enjoyed sheep, and had little to do with their care when I was growing up at Buckkeep Castle, so I did with Lin what Burrich had done with the hawk tenders at Buckkeep. I’d found a good man who knew more about the woolly knot-heads than I’d ever care to learn and entrusted Nettle’s flocks to him. But hearing him out did take a time and I felt my morning fleeing.

  When I turned around to look for Bee, she was not there. Daisy was sitting calmly. My reaction was instinctive. I reached out to both dog and man as I asked, “Where is she? Where did my daughter go?”

  “Kittens,” they responded as one. If Lin was Witted and Daisy his beast-partner, he had never told me, and now was not a time to ask. He would not be the first unWitted man I’d met who behaved as if he and his partner could speak to each other. But my concern now was not with them but Bee.

  “Kittens?”

  “There’s a litter back there under one of the mangers. Got their eyes open two weeks ago and now they’ve started to explore. ”

  Indeed they had. And the litter of four kits was exploring my daughter as she lay on her belly in the damp straw and let them climb on her. An orange-and-white one sat on her back and pulled her hair, his pin teeth set in her scruffy hair and his small feet braced. Two calicos were in the curve of her arms under her chin. At a short distance a black-and-white kit with a kink in his tail glared at her as she stared back at him. “Bee, it’s time to go,” I warned her.

  She moved slowly, reluctantly. I reached down to unfasten the orange kitten from her hair. It smacked me experimentally. I set it on the straw beside her. “We need to go now,” I prodded her.

  She sighed. “I like the kittens. I’ve never held one before. These ones are nice, but that one won’t let me touch him. ”

  Lin spoke. “Oh, that blackie is like his father. Full of piss and vinegar already. He’ll be a good ratter, but I wouldn’t choose him, Mistress Bee. ”

  “We’re not choosing any of them,” I corrected him. “She just wanted to hold one. ”

  Lin cocked his head at me. At his side, his dog mimicked him. “Well, I’m just saying she’s welcome to one if you want him. They’re the right age to find a new home. Their mother is tired of them and they’ve started to hunt. And a little friend might be a comfort to the little girl, sir. A warm little bit of company. ” He cleared his throat and added, “Though I think a pup would be better for her. ”

 

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