Fools assassin, p.38
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       Fools Assassin, p.38
 

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

  I got up and dressed myself much more quickly than usual. The room was chill; I got the lid of my winter clothing chest opened, wedged it so with my shoe, and then climbed halfway in to find woolen leggings and a quilted tunic and my belt with the bird-shaped clasp. I had grown. Both leggings and tunic were short on me. I should tell my mother …

  When I had finished weeping, I added some kindling to the embers in my hearth. Once, I would have wakened to my mother building up the fire in my room, and she would have set out my clothing for me. She’d continued to do that for me long after I was old enough to do it for myself. I did not think she had pitied me for my small size, but had enjoyed the rituals of having a small child and prolonged them.

  I’d loved that ritual as much as she did. I missed it still. But gone was gone and done was done, I told myself. And life would go on.

  I resolved to locate the other entrance in the pantry and devise a way to make it accessible. Yet even that was not a satisfactory solution. I wished again that my room had access to the corridors. The spyhole had shown me that the passage passed right behind my walls. Was it possible there was an access not even my father knew about?

  I moved slowly along the walls, searching again. I could see where the spyhole was, but only because I knew to look for it. One knothole in the paneling looked just a bit too convenient. I tapped cautiously on the wall panels, low at first and then as high as I could reach. The sounds told me only that whoever had built the corridors in the walls had done an excellent job of concealing them.

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  Abruptly, I was hungry. I turned the handle on my door and pushed it open and slipped out of my room. It was early and the house was quiet. I moved silently down the flagged hall and then down the wide stairways. Ever since I’d experienced that little private chamber in the spy-corridors, Withywoods had seemed even more immense to me. To descend the stair was little different to me from being outside. The ceilings seemed almost as distant as the sky, and certainly the drafts that blew through the house were almost as chill as the winds outdoors.

  The table was not yet set for breakfast. I went into the kitchens, where Tavia and Mild were already at work. The week’s bread was rising in a big covered crock near the hearth. As I went in, Elm went out, calling that she would look for eggs. Liar.

  “Hungry, moppet?” Tavia greeted me and I nodded. “I’ll toast you a bit of bread then. Hop up to the table. ”

  I did what I’d always done since I could climb, which was to crawl up onto a bench and then take a seat on the table’s edge. Then, after a moment’s thought, I moved down and sat on my feet on the bench. It made me almost tall enough to be comfortable at the board. Tavia brought me my small mug full of milk and gave me a curious glance. “Growing up, are we?”

  I gave her a nod.

  “Then you’re old enough to talk,” Mild observed. “At least say ta. ” As always, her comments to me had a sharper edge. I’d been in the act of picking up my mug. I stopped. I turned so I was looking only at Tavia. “Thank you, Tavia. You are always so kind to me. ” I enunciated each word carefully. Behind me, I head Mild drop her stirring spoon.

  Tavia stared at me for a moment. “I’m sure you’re very welcome, Bee. ”

  I drank from the mug and set it carefully back on the table.

  Tavia said, softly, “Well. She’s certainly her father’s daughter. ”

  “Yes. I am,” I agreed firmly.

  “That’s a certainty,” muttered Mild. She breathed out through her nose and added, “And here I scolded Elm for telling tales when she said Bee could talk if she wanted to. ” She began to beat whatever she was stirring very hard. Tavia said nothing, but brought me a couple of slices of last week’s bread, toasted to freshen it up and slathered with butter.

  “So. You’re talking now, eh?” Tavia asked me.

  I glanced at her and suddenly felt embarrassed. I looked at the table. “Yes. I am. ”

  I saw her curt nod out of the corner of my eye. “That would have pleased your lady mother. She told me once that you could speak a great many words, but were shy. ”

  I looked down at the scarred tabletop, feeling uncomfortable. I resented that she had known I could speak and said nothing. But I also valued that she had kept my secret. Perhaps there was more to Tavia than I had believed.

  She set a little pot of my mother’s honey on the board next to my bread. I looked at it. Now that Mama was gone, who would tend the bees in the summer and harvest the honey? I knew I should do it, but doubted I’d be successful. I’d tried over the last few months, but my solo results had been uneven. I had watched my mother and helped her, and yet when I tried to harvest the honey and the wax by myself, I had made a terrible mess. The few candles I had made were lumpy and graceless, the pots of honey tainted with small bits of wax and possibly bits of bees. I hadn’t had the courage to show them to anyone. Cleaning up the mess to leave the honey-and-candle room tidy had taken me hours. I found myself wondering if we would buy all our candles now. Where did one go to buy candles? And would we buy scented ones for special days? They could not be scented like my mother’s had been.

  I looked up as my father came into the kitchen. “I was looking for you,” he said sternly. “You weren’t in your bed. ”

  “I was here, getting food. Papa, I don’t want to burn Mama’s candles anymore. I want to save them. ”

  He stared at me for three heartbeats. “Save them for what?”

  “Special times. Times when I want to remember how she smelled. Papa, who will do all the things she did? Who will tend the hives and put up the honey and sew my clothes and put little bags of lavender in my clothing chest? Do all those things just stop now that she’s gone?”

  He stood very still in the kitchen, looking at me with his dark, broken eyes. He was untidy, his curly hair growing out raggedly from his mourning cut, his beard a tattered thing, and his shirt still wrinkled from last night’s rain. I could tell he hadn’t shaken it out and put it neat, but had taken it off and tossed it onto a chair or the bedpost. I felt sorry for him; Mama had always reminded him to do things the right way. Then I remembered I hadn’t brushed my hair before I left my room. I hadn’t brushed it out last night, either. It wasn’t long enough to braid. I reached up and felt it standing up in tufts all over my head. We were a pair, he and I.

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  Slowly, he began again, starting to move as if he were coming back to life. He walked to the table and sat down heavily across from me. “She did a lot of things around here, didn’t she? So many things. You never miss the water until the well runs dry. ”

  I looked at him. He sighed. “We’ll save her scented candles. For you. And as for those other things, well. Your sister Nettle already told me that I’d best hire more help to keep the house in better order. I suppose she was right. She might be planning to visit here more often and to bring friends with her when she comes. So there will be other people coming to live here and help us do things. I’ve already sent for my cousin. She’ll arrive in a few days. Her name is Shun. She’s about twenty. I hope you’ll like her. ”

  Mild and Tavia were listening in so hard, it made a sort of silence in the kitchen. I wanted to demand how I could have a cousin I’d never heard of. Did that mean my father had a brother or sister I didn’t know about? I wanted to ask but could not while they were listening so hard. I spoke bluntly. “I don’t want anyone else to come and live here. Can’t we just manage on our own?”

  “I’d like that, too,” my father replied. Tavia came to set a fat steaming pot of tea on the board. We didn’t usually breakfast in the kitchen, but I knew she was hoping he’d stay where he was and keep talking. I wondered if he was aware of their keen interest as much as I was. “But that’s not realistic, Bee. Not for either of us. Sometimes I have to be away from Withywoods, and you’ll need someone to look after you while I’m gone. You’ll need someone to te
ach you all the things a girl needs to know, not just how to read and figure, but how to sew and how to take care of yourself and do your hair and, well, all those things that girls know. ”

  I stared at him anxiously, realizing that he didn’t know what those things were any more than I did. I offered, “It would be a lot easier if I were a boy. Then we wouldn’t need anyone else coming to live here. ”

  That choked a brief laugh from him. Then he grew grave again. “But you aren’t a boy. And even if you were, we would still need to hire on more help. Nettle and I have spoken of it, several times. I’ve been neglecting Withywoods. Revel has been after me for months about a blocked chimney in one room, and a leak down the side of a wall in another. I can’t put it off any longer. The entire house needs a good cleaning, and then it needs to be better maintained. Your mother and I talked about it in spring, all the things we would fix over the summer. ” He halted again, his eyes going far. “Now winter is upon us, and none of it’s done. ” The cup that Tavia set down at his elbow clattered slightly in its saucer. She slid it carefully toward him.

  “Thank you,” he said, the courtesy a reflex. Then he turned and looked at her. “I’m so sorry, Tavia. I should have given you a lot more notice. Riddle will be escorting my cousin here, and possibly staying a few days as well. We’ll have to decide what rooms to give Shun and, well, I don’t know exactly what else will need to be done. Her branch of my family is fairly well-to-do. She may expect to have her own maid …”

  My father’s words faltered to a halt and his brows knit together as if he had just recalled something that was not pleasant. He fell silent. Cook Nutmeg had been pounding and kneading dough when I came into the kitchen. I glanced over at her. She was squishing it quietly on the breadboard, listening with every pore of her skin. I dared to break the quiet. “I did not know I had a cousin. ”

  He took a short breath. “My family is not close, I’m afraid, but for all that, when trouble calls, they recall that blood is thicker than water. And so Shun will come to help us, at least for a time. ”

  “Shun?”

  “Shun Fallstar is her name. ”

  “Did her mother not like her?” I asked and I heard Mild titter nervously.

  My father sat up straighter and poured tea from the pot into the waiting cup. “As a matter of fact, she did not. So, when she comes, to be kind, we will not ask her about her name nor about her home. I think she will find it as great a relief to come to us as we shall be grateful to have her. When she first arrives, she may feel awkward and may be wearied from her journey. So we shall not expect too much of her at first, shall we?”

  “I suppose not,” I said and felt my confusion swirl faster. Something was not right here and I could not put my finger on it. Was my father lying to me? I watched his face as he sipped his tea and could not tell. I started to ask and then bit back the question. I should not make him admit he was lying in front of Tavia and Mild and Cook. I would ask him later. Instead I said, “I had a special dream last night. I will need pen, ink, and paper to write it down. ”

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  “Oh, will you?” my father asked me indulgently. He smiled at me but I actually felt Mild and Tavia exchange startled looks behind us. They were finding out too much about me too fast but I found I didn’t care. Perhaps it would make my life easier if they didn’t think me simple anymore.

  “Yes. I will. ” I said it firmly. He had spoken as if this were just a sudden fancy of mine rather than an important matter. Did he not grasp what a special dream was? I decided to explain it.

  “The dream came to me all edged in black and gold. The colors of the dream were very bright and everything in it seemed very large, so that the smallest details could not be ignored. It began in my mother’s garden. The lavenders were heavy with bees and the sweet scent hung in the air. I was there. Then I saw the long carriageway that leads to the house. Four wolves were coming up the drive, trotting two by two. A white, a gray, and two red ones. But they were not wolves. ” I stopped a moment, struggling to name creatures I had only seen in a dream. “They were not beautiful like wolves, nor did they have the honor of wolves. They slunk with their hind haunches low and their scrawny tails down. Their ears were round and their red mouths hung open and they slavered as they came. They were wicked … no, that’s not right. They were the servants of wickedness. And they came hunting for the one who served the right. ”

  My father’s smile had grown puzzled. “This is quite a detailed dream,” he said. I turned to Tavia. “I think the bacon is burning,” I said, and she startled as if I’d poked her with a pin. She turned back to the pan where the sizzling strips had begun to smoke and pulled it away from the heat.

  “So it is,” she muttered, and busied herself with it.

  I turned back to my father and my toast. I ate two bites of it and drank some of the milk before I said, “I told you it’s a special dream. It goes on and on, and it is my duty to remember it all and keep it safe. ”

  The smile was beginning to fade from his face. “Why?”

  I shrugged. “I’m just supposed to. There’s a lot more to it. After the false wolves go past, I find a butterfly wing on the ground. I pick it up, but as I do the wing becomes larger and larger and under it is a pale man, white as chalk and cold as a fish. I think he is dead, but then he opens his eyes. They have no color. He does not speak with his mouth but opens his hand to talk. He dies with rubies falling from his eyes …”

  My father set his cup back down on the edge of his saucer. It tipped and his cup spilled, rolling across the table and leaving a trail of tea. “Damn!” he cried in a voice I didn’t know, and stood suddenly, nearly overturning the bench.

  “Oh, sir, never mind, I’ll clean that up,” Tavia exclaimed and came right away with a rag.

  My father backed away from the table, shaking hot tea from his hand. I ate the last bite of my toasted bread and butter. The dreaming had left me very hungry. “Is there going to be bacon soon?” I asked.

  Mild brought the platter to the table. It was only scorched a little, and as I’ve always liked it crispy, I didn’t mind.

  “I need to go out for a bit,” my father said. He had gone to the door, opened it, and was staring out at the muddy kitchen yard. He was drawing deep breaths of the chill winter air and cooling the kitchen as well.

  “Sir, the bread sponge!” Tavia objected to his open door.

  He said nothing but walked out with no cloak or coat. “I’ll need paper!” I cried, distressed that he would dismiss my request and my dream so carelessly.

  “Take what you need from my desk,” he said without looking back at me, and shut the door behind him.

  For the rest of that day, I saw little of my father. He was busy, I knew, and he put Withywoods into an uproar with his business. A set of rooms was chosen for my cousin, bedding taken out of the cedar chests and aired; the flues of the hearth in the room must be cleared, for it was discovered that some creature had completely blocked it with a nest. Over the next two days the chaos increased. Our steward, Revel, was completely delighted with the activity, and dashed hither and thither in the house, thinking of more and more tasks that the servants must undertake. A stream of strangers came to our door and met with my father and Revel in the manor study. They chose artisans and laborers, maids and lads from among those who came, and some of them came back the next day with their tools to begin work. And others came with handcarts full of their possessions, to move into the servants’ wing of the house.

  It seemed that no matter where I went the house was full of business. People were scrubbing floors and polishing woodwork and bringing furniture out of storage. A carpenter and his helpers came to repair a leaking roof in one of the plant rooms. In so much noise and activity, I went back to my silence and stealthy ways. No one noticed. Whenever I glimpsed my father, he was talking to someone or studying a paper or walking about scowling with Revel at his elbow point
ing at things and complaining. When he looked at me, he smiled, but there was something sad in his eyes and sick about his mouth that made me want to go and hide myself.

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  So that was what I did. I took the paper and ink and pens from his desk, and as he had said that I could take what I needed, I did that, taking good vellum and his best colored inks and pens with tips of copper. I took candles as well. I gathered many of my mother’s scented candles and hid them in my room, where they perfumed my clothing chest and filled my dreams with her fragrances. I took also the tall white slow-burning tapers we had made together, and these I kept in my spy-room.

  I took many things in those days of my father forgetting about me. I took hard bread and dried fruit and a nice wooden box to keep the rats away from them. I took a jug and stopper so I could have water, and a chipped cup that no one would miss. I took a woolen blanket they put out to air that Tavia said had been nibbled by mice and was good for nothing but polishing rags. The bustle at Withywoods was such that I stole with impunity, and no one noticed, for each thought someone else had moved the missing item. I found a rug figured in reds and oranges that was only a little too large for my spyhole. I rolled it a little up the walls, making my room a nest. From my mother’s stores, I took the lavender we had gathered and other fragrant herbs in sachets.

  My hidey-hole became quite comfortable. I did not access it from my father’s private study. Somehow I knew that he would not approve of how much time I was spending there, so I found the hidden door in the pantry and then built a wall in front of it from boxes of salt fish. I left just enough room that I could creep behind the boxes, open the concealed door, and squeeze in. I drew it shut behind me but took care that it could not latch me in. I never discovered the latch that allowed me to open it from the pantry side, so I always left it ajar a tiny crack.

 
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