Fools assassin, p.35
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       Fools Assassin, p.35

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

  Bait I would not take. I took a sip of my rum. Nasty stuff, but warming all the same. “How can he lend Skill-strength if he’s not Skilled himself?”

  He coughed and spoke hoarsely. “The same way Burrich loaned strength to your father. There was a deep personal bond and, like Riddle, he had a great reserve of physical strength. The Skill would help, of course, if he had it. But having served one person in that capacity, he was able to trust enough to allow another to tap him. ”

  I mulled that over. “Had you tried this experiment before?” I asked curiously.

  He drew a deeper breath and shuddered abruptly. He was still chilled, but his body was starting to warm in the still air of the tavern. “No. I thought this a good opportunity. The weather was fine at Buckkeep. I’ve used the stones to travel here often. I don’t know why it was so taxing. ”

  I refrained from saying anything about his age. “Did you read of this in a scroll or tablet?” And was he about to propose a more extended and regular use of the Skill-pillars? I braced myself to dissuade him.

  He nodded. His eyes weren’t on me but on Riddle, who was threading his way back to us, his own mug of rum held high. In his wake was a serving lad with a sling of firewood and a supply of extra candles. “He’ll prepare the room,” Riddle greeted us as he sat down and the boy headed up the stairs with his bucket. “Give him a few minutes to build up the fire, and then we’ll go up. ” He transferred his gaze to me. “Tom. You look a bit better than the last time I saw you. ”

  “A bit,” I agreed. I reached across the table to grip wrists with him. I felt an odd little tingle when my hand touched his skin. He was Nettle’s. It was a strange sensation to recognize her touch on him, as intimate as if I had smelled her perfume on his clothing. The wolf in me sat up, alert. I wondered if Chade sensed it as clearly as I did. A thought uncoiled in the back of my mind, and I suspected I knew why the trip through the stones had been so arduous. Was Nettle riding with Riddle, hearing with his ears and seeing all he saw? It was an intuitive leap that made me believe her presence would complicate their journey. I kept the theory to myself. I looked into his eyes, wondering if I could glimpse my daughter there. I saw nothing, but his smile broadened. All in the space of a moment. “So. A taxing journey, in this storm and all,” I said.

  I released Riddle’s grip and turned back to Chade. “Well, what brings you so far on such a foul night?”

  “We’ll wait for the room with the fire,” he said to that, and picked up his mug again. Riddle’s glance caught mine and he lifted one eyebrow. He intended some sort of message for me, but I didn’t know what.

  We sat in relative silence, letting the rum warm us while we waited. When the boy came down to the table and let us know the fire was burning well, Riddle tossed him a cut coin and we went upstairs. The room was at the end of the hall, sharing a chimney with the downstairs hearth. I was surprised that the horse traders hadn’t claimed it, but perhaps their purses were flatter than Chade’s. Riddle opened the door, and with a startling swiftness a little knife appeared in his hand. Seated on the end of one of the beds in the room was the girl who had earlier confused me. I took my cue from Chade, who did not seem startled at all. Nor did the girl seem alarmed at our sudden entrance. Head slightly lowered, she looked at us warily from the corner of her jade-green eyes.

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  Something I knew but could not bring to the front of my mind uncurled in the back of my thoughts. I was staring at the girl. Her lips curled in a cat smile.

  Chade paused, then walked in and seated himself at the table. It was a well-appointed room designed to accommodate traveling parties, with a table and four chairs, four narrow beds, and heavy curtains at the window. There was a trunk in the corner, the new leather straps barely scuffed. The girl might not have been there at all for all the attention Chade paid to her. Instead he spoke to Riddle. “See if you can find hot food for all of us. And perhaps another drink. Tom, one for you?”

  I shook my head slowly. I’d had enough and suddenly I didn’t want my wits to be muzzy. “Food would be good. They were roasting a nice beef joint earlier. A carve off that and some bread, perhaps. ”

  Riddle looked at me a moment longer. He knew he was once more being dismissed, and like me he could not imagine why. Also like me, he did not like it. Chade had said nothing about the strange girl.

  I looked directly at her. “I think we had a misunderstanding earlier. Perhaps you should go now. ”

  She looked at Chade and he spoke. “No. She needs to stay here. ” He didn’t look at anyone as he said, “Riddle, please. Food. And another hot drink. ” He looked at the girl. “For you?” She gave the tiniest nod. “For all of us,” he confirmed for Riddle.

  Riddle’s glance met mine, and I knew what he asked. I spoke it aloud. “I have his back, Riddle. You can go. ”

  Chade started to speak, then nodded instead. Riddle left with one more baleful glance at me. I moved around the room, making no pretenses as I looked under the beds for other intruders, checked that the sole window was tightly closed and latched, and then inspected the strapped trunk. “That’s not really necessary,” Chade said in a low voice.

  “That’s not what you taught me,” I said, and finished my tasks. I came back to the table and sat down.

  The girl still hadn’t moved from her perch on the foot of the bed, but now she spoke. “Looks to me like you’ve forgotten a lot of what he taught you. Checking under the beds now is too little and too late. ” She cocked her head at me. “I can see why he might need me. ”

  Chade spoke softly. “Please join us at the table. ” He cleared his throat and transferred his gaze to me. “I wish I had not been delayed. But here we all are, so we may as well discuss this together. ” It was as close as he would come to an apology for not preparing me for this. Whatever “this” was. Something he had not wanted to discuss via the Skill. Yet if Riddle knew, then Nettle would know. But not King Dutiful, perhaps. I pushed those thoughts aside. Focus on the here and now.

  I watched the girl as she rose to accept his invitation. She moved like a cat, save for the sway of her hips as she sauntered to the table. If she’d been wearing bells on them, they’d have rung at each step. I tried to catch Chade’s gaze. He evaded me. So I studied her as she crossed the room. She did not look dangerous; nor did she appear innocuous in the way that the most dangerous people I have known appeared. She looked ordinary, but contained. No. Not contained. Ready to burst with pride in herself. She walked like a cat with a bird in her mouth, one that wasn’t quite dead. In a moment she’d release her prey for the joy of pouncing on it again.

  I suddenly recognized what made her familiar. Her heritage was unmistakably Farseer. I was accustomed to seeing those features echoed in the males of my lineage. Nettle now resembled her mother more than she had ever resembled me. But this girl, despite the femininity of her features, echoed Verity and, eerily, me. My mind was assembling bits of knowledge into theory as fast as it could. A Farseer born. Younger than Dutiful, but too old to be his get. Certainly not mine. So whose? I felt as if the room had suddenly tilted. Whence had come this sprout on the family tree?

  I waited for one of them to speak. I wondered at her slow stroll to the table. Chade would have interpreted that as insolence if I’d ever tried it, and a rap on the skull would have been the least reminder I would have received. But in her, he tolerated it. Something to mull.

  As soon as she sat down, he said, “Report. ”

  She cast me one glance and then focused her attention on Chade. “He’s careless,” she said offhandedly. “His ‘disguise’ is pathetic. I bumped him twice before he noticed me. It was stupidly easy to get next to him. All he was thinking about was watching for you. ” She swung her eyes to look at me, daring me to respond. “I could have killed him three times over, drugged him, or picked his pocket. ”

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  That stung. “I
very much doubt that. And I think that is the poorest excuse for a report that I’ve ever heard. ”

  She raised her brows at me. “All necessary information was conveyed. ” She cocked her head at my old mentor and asserted, “If Lord Chade had needed more detail, he’d have asked me for it. ” As she spoke, she rose and came around to my side of the table. I twisted my head to look up at her. She spoke to Chade in a very confident tone. “Tell him that he should let me touch him. ”

  Chade met my gaze then. “It’s safe. She’s one of ours. ”

  “In more ways than one, obviously,” I retorted. I heard a small exhalation of breath from her, but I couldn’t tell if I’d hit my target or she was amused by me. I sat still, but somewhere a wolf lifted his hackles and growled low.

  I felt her light touch on the back of my collar, then the shoulder of my shirt. She leaned down to touch my hip, and then I felt her hand brush my ribs. As she drew her fingers away, my shirt followed them briefly. Then she set the pins out on the table. There were six of them, not four, each less than half a finger’s length. The heads were shaped like tiny green spiders.

  “If I had nudged any one of them a bit harder, they would have pierced your skin. ” She leaned closer, over my shoulder, and spoke by my ear. “Any of them could have been tipped with poison, or a sleeping dose. You’d have keeled over in front of the fire, just another drunk passing out, until no one could wake you again. ”

  “I’ve told you,” Chade said sternly. “Those spiders are a vanity that no assassin can afford. Never leave a mark that anyone might associate with you. I’m disappointed in you. ”

  Her voice tightened at his rebuke. “I merely used them in this instance to prove that I was the one who set them, not some other spy or assassin sent in before me. I would never use them on a task that was confidential or important. I only used them today to prove what I told you. He’s careless. ” Her disdain burned me. She stood behind me, slightly to my left and added, “Sloppy. Anyone could kill him. Or his child. ”

  I hadn’t known I was going to do it. My chair overturned as I moved. I wasn’t as fast as I once was, but I was still faster than she was. She hit the floor on her back. My left hand gripped her right wrist with the small knife she’d pulled as she fell beneath me. My right thumb was in the hollow of her throat, pressing firm and deep, my fingers biting into the back of her neck. Her teeth were bared and her eyes bulging at me when I became aware of Chade on his feet over us.

  “Stop it! Both of you! This is not why I brought you together. If I wanted either one of you dead, I could do it a lot more efficiently than setting you on each other. ”

  I lifted my thumb from her throat at the same time I throttled the knife from her hand. I came back to my feet with a backward leap that put me out of easy reach. Another step back and I had the wall behind me and both of them in full view. I hoped neither of them could see what it had cost me. I breathed slowly and steadily despite my hammering heart and desperate need for more air. I pointed a finger at the girl. “Never threaten my child. ”

  “I didn’t!” Her angry retort was strangled as she used a chair to come to her feet. I ignored her and focused my anger on my old mentor. “Why did you set your assassin on me?” I demanded of Chade.

  “I didn’t set an assassin on you,” he objected with great disgust. He moved around the table to resume his chair.

  “I wasn’t told to kill you, only probe your weakness. It was a small test,” the girl interjected. She wheezed in another breath and added vindictively, “One that you failed. ” She levered herself to her feet and sat down.

  Much as I wished to deny that, I couldn’t. I spoke only to Chade. “Like the one you sent before. When Bee was only days old. ”

  Chade didn’t flinch. “Somewhat. Except that he was just a boy. And, as I suspected, not suited to the training. It was one of the things we wished to discover about him. I moved him in a different direction, as you suggested. My own fault. He really wasn’t prepared for you. ”

  “But I was,” the girl said with quiet satisfaction.

  “Stop gloating,” Chade told her. “Your tongue runs away with you. You’re taunting a man who could have quickly killed you a minute ago. To no purpose. You’re getting completely on his wrong side, and then you’ll never be able to work with him. ”

  I didn’t move from my position. “I don’t do that sort of ‘work’ anymore,” I told the old man coldly. “Nor do I currently need to live as if every stranger might be out to kill me. Unless you’ve done something to set those sorts of threats in motion again. ”

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  He crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Fitz. Stop being an ass and come back to the table. Those threats never went away. You of all people should know that. You put yourself mostly out of harm’s way, and it’s worked for you. Most of the folk who have deduced who you are either have no ill will toward you, or haven’t had much reason of late to wish you dead. But when you produced a child, that changed things. I thought that surely you had recognized that and were taking precautions. The first time I tested your boundaries, you seemed well aware of the danger.

  “But when Nettle told me how mired you are in grief, and that the child may well need special protection for the rest of her life, I resolved to offer you help, if you needed it. Especially when she mentioned that you might send the child to Buckkeep. Or come back there yourself. ”

  “I’ve no intention of coming back to Buckkeep. And I don’t need anyone to help me protect myself or Bee!” I hated that he had called me Fitz in front of her. A lapse or deliberate? “The only threats I’ve encountered of late seem to come from those I thought I could trust. ”

  Chade gave me a look. It appealed to me for something. I wasn’t sure what he was asking. His words contradicted his expression. “That’s exactly how I expected you to respond. Which was why I charged Shun with first determining if you did or not. And you obviously do. ”

  Riddle warned us with a knock before he shouldered open the door and entered with a tray of plates and mugs. His dark eyes flickered over the room, taking in my stance, the overturned chair, and the girl’s sullen face. I saw his brows lift slightly. But he made no comment. As he slid the heavy tray onto the table, he noted, “I brought plenty for all of us. I assume she’s our guest?” He stooped and righted the chair, gestured courteously at it for the girl.

  “Let’s eat before we talk more,” Chade suggested.

  I came to the table reluctantly. My pride was chafed. I didn’t like Chade sharing so much about me with this girl when I knew so little about her, save what I’d surmised. He’d spoken my name before her! All I knew of her was that she was related to us. How old was she, who was her mother, and how long had Chade been training her? Was she nobly born, with all the political strings that would attach to her? And why did he suddenly want to place her with me?

  For that was obviously his intent, that he’d put her in my household, ostensibly as Bee’s bodyguard. A laudable idea, in some ways, if my child had truly needed guarding. Patience had always had Lacey at her side, and no one had questioned that Prince Chivalry’s wife would be accompanied everywhere by her servant. Nor had they thought it odd that Lacey had always had her tatting and her long needles for working lace with her. Lacey had watched over Patience, keeping her safe even after assassins had managed to kill her husband. In their old age the roles had reversed, and Patience had lovingly tended her failing “serving woman” to the end of her days.

  But I doubted this girl had the temperament for such a role. She looked of an age to be a nurse or nanny for a small child, but she had shown me no signs that she could adopt such an identity. Her stealth skills were impressive, but in a physical fight she had no muscle or weight to draw on. Her Farseer features would draw too much attention at Buckkeep; she’d be useless as a spy there.

  I doubted even more that we would get along well enough
for me to trust her with my daughter. And I didn’t like that Riddle had looked surprised and still seemed to regard her with caution. Obviously, he had known as little of Chade’s plan as I had. He hadn’t recognized her. I couldn’t tell if he had realized she was related to the royal family or not.

  I seated myself opposite her. Riddle served her first, setting a laden plate in front of her. For short notice, he’d done well by us. Thick slabs of steaming meat fresh carved from the spit, the crackling fat nicely browned, potatoes popping white and mealy from crispy baked skins, and dark-brown gravy. There was a loaf of warm bread and a pot of pale butter beside it. It was simple but there was plenty of it and Shun swallowed audibly as he set it in front of her. She had a healthy appetite and made no pretense of waiting for the rest of us, but seized a fork and knife and began eating. Riddle raised his brows at such childish manners but said nothing as he set out plates for Chade and me and then himself. He’d brought up a pot of tea and four cups as well.

  Riddle went back to the door, latched it, and then returned to join us at table. Riddle ate with an appetite. Chade sorted through his food like an old man. As for me, I recognized that the food was of good quality but could not concentrate on it enough to enjoy it. I drank hot tea and watched them. Chade was quiet, his gaze moving between me and the girl as he ate. At the end of the meal, he looked much the better for having eaten. Shun ate with obvious and focused enjoyment. She seized the teapot and refilled her own cup without asking if any of us would care for more. She did not hesitate to take the last potato in the dish, and when she was finished she leaned back in her chair and breathed a loud sign of satiation. When Riddle began gathering and stacking the emptied plates back on the tray, I spoke bluntly to the old assassin.

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  “You trained me to report well to you, to give you the whole of what I learned. After we had all the facts laid out, then we’d build our assumptions. Yet you’ve sprung this on me with no warning and less explanation, and expect me to humbly accept it without questions. What are you about, old man? What do you want? And don’t pretend that this youngster becoming my daughter’s protector is the sum of this. ”

 

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