Fools assassin, p.33
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       Fools Assassin, p.33

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

  I knew a moment of impatience. A kitten or puppy would not cure her grief over her mother’s death. Then a sharp memory of a pup named Nosy intruded into my mind. But another young creature to be her friend could help. A lot. And perhaps in all the wrong ways. I spoke firmly.

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  “Thank you, but no, Lin. Perhaps when she’s a bit older, but not now. Come, Bee. We need to get back to the house. ”

  I expected a plea from her. Instead she sat up, gently letting the pair of calicos slide back into the straw. A moment longer she stared at the black kitten. She pointed one finger at him, as if to warn him, but then stood up the rest of the way and followed obediently as I left the sheep sheds. I slowed my pace even more on our walk back to the house. “So. What did you hear?” I asked Bee.

  She was silent for a long time. I was on the point of pushing for a response when she admitted, “I wasn’t really paying attention. It was just about sheep. It wasn’t about me. And there were the kittens. ”

  “We talked about sheep that belong to your sister, with a man who makes his living taking care of those sheep. Someday you may have to walk down there to talk to him, or to his daughter or grandchild, about those sheep. Next time, you listen. ” I paused to give her a moment to mull that, and then asked, “So you didn’t hear this time. What did you see?”

  She surprised me in what she had heard me say. My question had not entered her mind at all. She spoke hesitantly in a voice full of trepidation. “So. Withywoods does not belong to you, or to me. It’s Nettle’s house and they are Nettle’s sheep. They’ll never be mine. Or the grapes or the orchards. None of it is really mine. Nettle was Mama’s eldest, and she now owns it all. But someday I may have to take care of all of it for her, just as you do. ” She pondered a moment. “Papa, when I am grown and you are dead, what will belong to me?”

  An arrow to my heart. What would belong to this odd child of mine? Even if I set aside a good marriage portion for her, would she grow to be a woman that a man would wish to wed? A good man? How would I find him, or know him when I had? When I was dead and gone, what would befall her? Years ago, Chade had asked me the same thing, and I had replied she was but a baby, and it was too soon to worry. Nine years had passed since then. Another nine and she would be eligible for marriage.

  And I was a procrastinating idiot. I spoke quickly to fill my long silence. “I am sure that your sister and brothers would never allow you to live in want,” I told her, and I was confident that I spoke truth to her.

  “That’s not the same as knowing there would be something that was mine,” she said quietly.

  I knew she was right. Before I could assure her that I would do my best to see that she was provided for, she spoke again. “This is what I saw. I saw sheep, and sheep dung, and straw. I saw lots of wool on the lower rungs of the fence, and lots of little spiders, red and black, on the bottom sides of the rungs. I saw one ewe lying down, and she had rubbed all the wool and some of her skin off her rump. Another ewe was rubbing her hip on a fencepost and licking her lips while she did it. ” I was nodding, pleased at her observation. She gave me a glance, looked aside and added, “And I saw Lin looking at me and then looking away, as if I was something he’d rather not see. ”

  “He was,” I agreed. “But not in dislike. He’s sad for you. He liked you enough to think you should have a kitten or a puppy of your own. Look at how he is with his own dog, and you’ll see that isn’t something he’d suggest for a child he disliked. ”

  She made a skeptical noise in her throat.

  “When I was a boy,” I told her calmly, “I hated being a bastard. I thought that whenever anyone looked at me, that was the first thought he had. So I made being a bastard the most important thing about me. And whenever I met anyone, the first thing I thought of was how he was thinking about meeting a bastard. ”

  We walked for a time in silence. I could tell she was already tired. I caught myself thinking that I’d have to build her endurance with regular challenges and then reminded myself that she was not a dog nor a horse, but my child.

  “Sometimes,” I added carefully, “I decided that people didn’t like me before they had had a chance to decide for themselves. So I didn’t speak to them or make any effort to have them like me. ”

  “Being a bastard is something that doesn’t show unless you make it show,” she said. She gestured at herself. “I can’t hide this. Being small and looking younger than I am. Being pale where most folk are dark. Being able to talk as if I am older than I am is something I can hide. But you said I shouldn’t do that. ”

  “No. Some of your differences you can’t hide. Little by little, you can let people see that you are a lot more intelligent than most children of your age. And that will make you less frightening to them. ”

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  Again that sound of disdain.

  “Were you scared of Daisy?” I asked her.

  “Daisy?”

  “The herd dog. Did she scare you?”

  “No. Of course not! She does like to poke me with her nose. But Daisy’s nice. ”

  “How do you know?”

  A hesitation before she replied. “She wagged her tail. And she wasn’t afraid of me. ” A pause. “May I have a puppy?”

  Not where I’d wanted the conversation to go, but again it was inevitable. “It would be hard for me to let you have a dog just now. ” Not while my heart was so desperately lonely still. Not while I reached out, whether I would or not, to any creature that looked at me with sympathetic eyes. Even if I did not bond, the dog would be drawn to me, not her. No. “Perhaps in the future we can talk about it again. But what I wanted you to see … Are you tired? Shall I carry you?”

  Her walk had slowed to a trudge, and her cheeks were bright red with effort and the chill wind’s kiss.

  She straightened her spine. “I’m nearly ten. I’m too old to be carried,” she said with great dignity.

  “Not by your father,” I said, and swooped her up. She went stiff in my arms, as she always did, but I was relentless. I set her up high on my left shoulder and lengthened my stride. She perched there, speechless and stiff as a stick. I thought I perceived her problem. I took a breath and walled myself in tighter. It wasn’t easy. For a moment I was as disoriented as if I had suddenly discarded my sense of smell or sight. When one has the Wit, to use it is instinctive, and the Skill wells over and out of the untrained. But I was rewarded by her relaxing a trifle, and then exclaiming, “I can see so far! Can you see this far all the time? Well, I suppose you can! How wonderful it is!”

  She was so pleased and excited that I hadn’t the heart to drag her back to my lecture. Another time would be soon enough, I promised myself. She had just lost her mother, and she and I were just discovering how to reach out to each other. Tomorrow I would talk with her again about how to put others at ease. For now I would enjoy a moment when she seemed an ordinary child and I could simply be her father.

  Chapter Twelve

  Explorations

  Once there was an old woman who lived all alone in the middle of a busy city. She made her living as a washerwoman for several wealthy merchant families. Each day she would go to one of their homes, gather the dirty clothing, and take it to her own home where she would scrub and pound it clean, spread it to dry on her thatched roof, and do whatever mending might be required. It did not afford her a good livelihood, but she liked her work because she could do it by herself.

  She had not always been alone. Once she had had a dog. The dog had been her Wit-beast and her friend. But no dog lives forever, and few live as long as a human, and so the sad day came when the woman found herself alone. And alone she had been ever since then. Or so she thought.

  Early one morning as she clambered from her bed, she slipped and fell. And when she tried to stand up, she could not, for she had broken her leg high at the hip. She called for help, but no one heard her
and no one came. All that day, and the night, and the next day she lay on the floor. She grew faint with hunger, and thirst took her voice away. Her mind began to wander and she ran the streets of the city as her dog once had. Now as a dog and in her dream, she met a young man and said to him, “My mistress has need of your aid. Follow me, please, I beg of you. ”

  She woke to a man holding a cup of cool water to her lips. “I dreamed a dog and he brought me here,” he told her. He saved her life, and though she mended but slowly and always walked with a stick and a hitch, ever after that they were friends.

  Badgerlock’s Old Blood Tales

  When I was sure my father was well and truly on his way, I slid out of my bed, took one of my mother’s scented candles from the supply in the bedside table, and kindled it at the fire. I put it into a holder and set it on the floor while I got a warm woolen robe from my winter clothing chest. I didn’t like the big storage chest. The lid was beautifully carved, with birds and flowers, but it was heavy. I was not tall enough to open it all the way, so I had to hold it up with one hand while I rummaged in the depths with the other. Fortunately there was a robe close to the top, and the prickly touch of the wool against my fingers told me it was the one I wanted. I fished it up and leapt back, letting the lid of the chest fall with a thump. Tomorrow, I decided, I would ask my father to prop the chest open for me so that I could move warm clothing from it to the smaller chest he had made for me. The night’s storm surely meant winter was on its way. It was time to make the changes.

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  I pulled the robe on over my nightdress, and then put on my warm stockings. I didn’t bother with shoes. My house shoes were too tight to go over the thick wool and my old boots too heavy for what I had in mind. I picked up my candle, opened the door, and peered out into the corridor. All was quiet. I slipped out, letting the door shut softly behind me. Finally I would have the leisure to explore the secret passageway as thoroughly as I wished. Ever since I had glimpsed it, I had thought of nothing else. I had wanted to return there directly as soon as we came back from the sheep pens, but there had been a meal to eat, and then my father had kept me by his side as he worried and fretted that he would have to leave me alone that night. So silly. Was not I alone every night when he sat in his study or slept in his bed? What difference did it make that he was far from our home?

  The banked embers of the hearth fire in my father’s study had burned low. I added another log, as much for light as warmth. I took two tall candles from the drawer of his desk. Then I carefully did as he had done earlier, making sure that the drapery at the window was tightly closed, latching the study doors, and working the secret catch on the false hinge. When the narrow door opened, the house breathed out at me, a chill breath of old secrets. I breathed it in and felt them fill me. Candleholder in hand, I started up the narrow way.

  I went first to the small room my father had shown me. I investigated it more carefully, but found little that I hadn’t seen before. It was pleasant to sit there alone, the candle making a yellow pool of light around me while I thought of how I would put my book on the little shelf and my ink pot and pen beside them. I had never realized how much I had longed for a space of my very own. My bedroom had always seemed a vast and chilly space to me, little different from trying to sleep in the middle of the table in the dining hall. Here I felt cozy and sheltered. I resolved that the next time I came here, I would bring a duster to sweep away cobwebs and make it all tidy, and a cushion and blanket to make it cozy. I would make pictures to go on the walls. It was very satisfying to imagine the space made over to suit me exactly, and I lingered so long at that pursuit that my scented candle burned low. I kindled one of the tapers I had taken from my father’s desk. I quickly resolved that a supply of them must be kept here. No time like the present. I put my extra taper onto the little shelf and turned to pinch out the small flame on what was left of the scented candle. A tiny wisp of fragrant smoke rose from it, scenting the air. I set the stub on my desk and put the lit taper in the holder. I should bring some of the sachets my mother and I had made, some of the rose and honeysuckle ones. I would fill the little cabinet with all the things I wished to keep here. Dried apricots and raisins. The hard little sausages that I loved to chew. It would be cozy and comfortable, a place to read or draw or write. My own tiny room.

  The fresh candle reminded me of the passing time. I wanted to explore the other passageway that I had only glimpsed earlier. I recalled that my father said it led to two other entrances, one in his bedroom and one in the pantry. The pantry was on the lower floor behind the kitchens while my parent’s chamber was in the main part of the house and upstairs. So at some point there must be stairs, I reasoned, and immediately decided that I would explore that passage.

  I returned to the intersection that I had earlier glimpsed and this time instead of going back to the study, I followed the other passage. I noticed that the passageway was walled with dark-planked wood here, and wondered if it was older than the first section I had explored. As my father had warned me, it had not been used in quite some time. Draping cobwebs sizzled and twitched as they met my candle’s flame. The passage bent first one way and then another as it followed the walls of the chambers. At one point, the wall of the passage was brick and mortar and very cold. Drafts made the flame of my candle dance and I shielded it with my hand. I felt that perhaps I was now in the main part of the house. I hurried along, passing the bared bones of a mouse, dead so long there was no stink to him. I found two more peepholes, each shuttered with a tiny lid. I set my candle down and endeavored to see where I was, but try as I might, I could see nothing of the darkened rooms they spied on. Indeed, I had only a hazy idea of where I was in the house, and could not tell if I passed bedchambers or sitting rooms.

  I came to a place where the passage diverged into not two but three possible paths. So perhaps there were more entrances to the spy-tunnels than my father had told me. The first one I chose was a disappointment. It did not go far before it came to a peephole and another little bench beneath it. Again I set my candle down and after a short struggle, I managed to push the stubborn cover to one side. I was astonished to find I was looking into my own bedchamber. The fire was burning low but it still cast enough light for me to see by. I was on the hearth-wall of my room, where I could look down on the bed. I wondered if there was a secret entrance to my bedroom, and carefully felt all along the nearby wall for some catch or hinge. But if there was one, I did not find it, which was very disappointing—I had become quite excited at the idea of being able to access my new refuge from my bedroom.

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  I returned to the intersection of the tunnels, resolving not to dawdle, for my candle was almost half gone. A lamp was what I needed for future exploration. I was certain that my father would allow me neither to possess my own lamp, nor to wander through the walls of Withywoods with a borrowed one. I wondered if he would notice it if I took the one from my mother’s sewing room. He had avoided that room since her death. I felt a pang of conscience at the thought of going behind his back to get what I needed, but not a large one. I was quite certain that he considered me far less capable than I was. Did that mean I should limit myself to what he thought I could do? I didn’t think so.

  I chose a path at random and followed it. It wound for quite a way through the walls, and twice I negotiated what would have been very tight corners for an adult. I went down some crude steps, then up, and a short time later down a longer slant. I encountered more evidence of vermin and halted once when I heard small feet scampering away from me. I do not care for rats and mice. Rats do not stink as badly as mice do, but I do not like their beady eyes. The droppings along the wall edges grew thicker and the urine stink stronger. I found two gnawed holes in the passage: Obviously the rodents had discovered this safe and easy passage and had been using it, by which I deduced that this one would lead to the pantry.

  And it did. M
y candle was now just a quarter of its length, and I resolved that I should exit the passage here before it guttered out and left me in darkness. The lever to open the panel was obvious, and though it was stiff, I heaved on it until I heard a click in the wall. I pushed at what I judged was the door, but it moved only a handspan. It was designed to swing out, and when I put my hand out through the opening, I clearly felt that sacks of something, peas or beans, had been stacked against it. I pushed against them, but they were heavy and unyielding. I would not get out that way.

  It was time to leave my warren. I closed the secret panel to the pantry and headed back the way I had come, feeling both chilled and sleepy. I walked into a heavy cobweb and had to stop to clear it from my eyes. My robe, I noticed, was now very dusty and coated in webbing. I wondered if I could clean it myself and avoid the questions, for I was certain my father would not approve of this solo exploration.

  I reached the intersection and turned to go back to my father’s study. My feet were chilled, and cold was starting to creep up my legs. I felt a tickling on my neck and nearly dropped my candle. I set it down, and with my fingers combed spiderweb from my hair. I did not find the spider despite several moments of futile searching. I took up my candle and walked on. The dimness of the passage seemed to make my eyelids feel heavier. It would be good to be back in my room and under my blankets.

  I set my candle down again to clear more cobwebs from my path. I continued down the corridor and turned a corner before it occurred to me that there should no longer be spiderwebs in my way if I were retracing my steps. I halted where I was, lifted my candle, and peered ahead down the narrow way. No. There was no sign that I had passed this way earlier. The cobwebs were undisturbed, as was the dust on the floor. I turned back, pleased to note that my footprints and the drag of my robe were obvious here. Finding my way back was no trick at all now, and I stepped up my pace.

 
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