Fools assassin, p.40
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       Fools Assassin, p.40
 

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

  “At the end, when the Blue Soldier had slain the Boar with Red Tusks and freed the Rain Cloud so it could rain on the land and the crops would grow? The story was meant to stop there. But then, when they were folding the curtains, I saw the Blue Soldier dangling next to the Boar with Red Tusks, and his tusks were deep in the soldier’s vitals. So I knew that in the end, the Boar came back and slew the soldier after all. ”

  “Uh, no, Bee. That wasn’t part of the story at all! It was just something that happened when the puppets were put away. ”

  He didn’t understand at all. I explained to him. “No. It was the next story. Like your friend said could happen. An accident when it was all supposed to be over. ”

  He looked at me with his dark eyes. I could look into them to a deep place where things were still broken, never to be mended. My mother had always been able to make that broken part recede, but I didn’t know how. Maybe no one did, now. “Well. It’s late,” he said suddenly. “And I’ve wakened you and kept you awake longer than I intended. I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t worrying about your cousin coming. I’m glad you’re fine with it. ” He stood and stretched.

  “Do I have to obey her?”

  He dropped his arms suddenly. “What?”

  “Must I obey Shun Fallstar when she comes?”

  “Well, she’s a woman grown, so she is to be respected by you. Just as you respect Tavia or Mild. ”

  Respect. Not obey. I could do that. I nodded slowly and slid down in my bed. My mother would have come to tuck the covers more closely around me. He didn’t.

  He walked softly to the door, and then paused. “Did you want a story? Or a song?”

  I thought about it. Did I? No. I had his stories, his real ones, to think about until I fell asleep. “Not tonight,” I said and yawned.

  “Very well. Sleep, then. I’ll see you in the morning. ” He yawned widely. “It’s going to be a big day for all of us,” he said, and to me it sounded more like dread than anticipation.

  “Papa?”

  He stopped just inside the door. “What is it?”

  “You should trim your hair tonight. Or make it lie down with grease tomorrow, or however boys do that. It looks very wild now. And your beard is awful. Like, like …” I searched for words I had heard long ago. “Like a mountain pony with its coat half-shed. ”

  He stood very still, and then smiled. “You heard that from Nettle. ”

  “I think so. But it’s true. ” I dared to add, “Please shave it off. You don’t need to look older, like Mother’s husband anymore. I want you to look like my father instead of my grandfather. ”

  He stood there, one hand touching his beard.

  “No. She never liked it in the first place. You should cut it all off. ” I’d known what he was thinking.

  “Well. Perhaps I shall, then. ” And he softly closed the door behind himself.

  Chapter Fifteen

  A Full House

  Wildeye was ever a reluctant Catalyst to her Master, for she regarded him as more tormentor than mentor. For his part, the old White was not pleased that his Catalyst was such a homely and resentful young woman. He complained in all his writings that fate had made him wait through most of his life for her to be born, and then when he did find her and make her his companion, she made his old age a trial to him. Nonetheless, as his darkening showed, he was able to complete some of the tasks that were appointed to him by fate, and when he died it was said that he had, indeed, set the world on a better path.

  Whites and Catalysts, Eulen Screep

  Shun arrived in the afternoon. She rode a trim little sorrel mare with white stockings, and Riddle accompanied her on a rangy white gelding. Her green cloak was trimmed with fur and draped not just her but half her mount. A mule followed laden with a trunk on one side and several boxes on the other. The sorrel’s tack was gleaming new, as was the trunk. So. Chade had provided the coin, and Shun had wasted no time in directing Riddle to take her to a larger market town. I suspected that the days since I had last seen her had been spent in acquiring these things. I wondered again what had precipitated such a speedy departure from wherever Chade had been keeping her that she had left her possessions behind. Had the attempt on her life been that dire? And who was her enemy that he could find her when neither Riddle nor I knew of her existence, let alone her location? There were still far more mysteries attached to this young lady than I liked.

  I met them in the carriageway. My hair was brushed and my face stung from scraping the last remnants of beard off it. I’d found my last clean shirt and given my boots a hasty wipe with my dirty shirt. I needed to make time to bundle my dirty clothing and ask one of the servants to see to it. I had realized, with shame, that I’d never given a thought to such things before. Molly had seen to it that my wardrobe was kept in order. Molly …

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  I had decided my trousers were presentable and hastily left the room we once had shared. Why was I fussing over my appearance? After all, it was only Riddle and Shun.

  I had hoped to have Bee at my side, but though I had called her when a boy came running to tell me that horses were coming up the drive, she had not answered me. Of late she had taken to disappearing within the house. Although she had begun talking more, I felt as if she said less to me. She still avoided meeting my eyes. I was accustomed to that, but not to the sidelong gazes she sent me, as if she were evaluating me and studying my responses. It was unnerving.

  And I’d had no real time to devote to understanding it. A veritable deluge of work had drenched me in details. Winter always brings out the worst in a house. If a roof is going to leak, winter storms make it happen. Clogged chimneys filled guest rooms with smoke and stench. It seemed to me that just as I was already overwhelmed the manor turned on me and developed every imaginable problem. The crown provided Nettle with a generous allowance for her tasks as Skillmistress of Dutiful’s coterie. And Queen Kettricken had bestowed a further allowance for the upkeep of Withywoods as an acknowledgment of all that Burrich had done for the Farseer monarchy during his life. So there was coin to effect the repairs, but it did not make the noisy and unsettling process of having workmen come into the manor any more palatable to me. Nor lessen my irritation with myself that I had let it all go all summer.

  So in the midst of workmen coming and going, and carts arriving with timber and plank and brick, and folk mixing mortar in tubs, Shun and Riddle arrived. Riddle, damn him, did not bother to conceal his amusement, while Shun’s dismay was plain on her face. I called a stable lad to take their horses, and Revel appeared to direct a new housemaid to find someone to carry Shun’s trunks to the guest room. He told me that he had arranged refreshments in the Mockingbird Room, a relatively quiet parlor. I thanked him and asked them to follow me there. As we arrived, the new kitchen girl was just leaving. It took me a moment to recall that her name was Opal. I thanked her. There was a fat steaming pot of tea on the table, and an assortment of little cakes. She told us that she’d be back in a moment with sausage rolls fresh from the kitchen and asked if there was anything else we would fancy. Shun studied the table and requested wine. And perhaps some cheese, and cut bread. And butter. Opal bobbed a curtsy and said she would tell Cook Nutmeg. I added to her tasks, asking her to see if anyone could find Lady Bee and send her to us. Then she was gone and I turned to Shun and Riddle.

  “I’m sorry about the clatter. It seems that as soon as I discovered one thing needed repair, it led to another. I promise that the room you’ll have tonight is snug and warm, and they’ve told me that by the end of the week, your apartments should be fully habitable. We haven’t had many long-term guests here at Withywoods, and I’m afraid the house hasn’t been kept up as well as it might have been. ”

  The dismay in Shun’s eyes deepened.

  “Lady Bee is not here? Is she well?” Riddle intervened. Perhaps he had hoped to change the subject.

  As i
f summoned by his words, there was a light tap on the door and Bee drifted in. There was no other word for how she moved. Her body was languid with grace, and the pupils of her eyes were so dilated that her eyes looked almost black. She stared at me, and when she spoke, her words were thick. “It’s today,” she said. She smiled ethereally. “The butterfly in the garden, Father. The wing is on the ground and the pale man awaits you. ”

  She fell silent as we all stared at her. I felt heartsick; was she drugged? Sick? This was nothing like any Bee I had ever seen. Riddle looked horrified. He stared at her and then turned accusing eyes on me. Sometimes I forgot how young she appeared to folk who did not know her well. To hear such words from a nine-year-old would have been alarming enough, but most onlookers would have guessed her age at merely six. Shun spoke. “I thought you said you had a daughter? Who is this little boy? Do your servants often speak to you so?”

  I scarcely heard her. “Bee, are you well?”

  She tipped her head as if finding me by sound rather than sight. Her expression was beatific. “It feels so good to be right. When the circle closes. And it actually happens. You should go quickly. There isn’t much time. ” She shook her head slowly. “The messenger has come such a long way to die at the doorstep. ”

  I found my wits. “I fear my child is ill. ” I crossed the room and caught her up in my arms. At my touch, she went rigid. Hastily, I sealed myself. “Riddle, please take care of everything else. ” Riddle said something as I left, his voice anxious. I shut the door on his words.

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  I strode down the corridor, Bee in my arms. I turned to carry her toward the stairs and her bedchamber but she suddenly came alive in my arms and with a twist of her body freed herself of my grip. She landed on her feet, swayed into a near-fall, and then contorted her body the other direction to stay on her feet. For a moment she seemed a girl made of fluid. Then she sprang away from me, calling over her shoulder, “This way, FitzChivalry. This way!” Her voice was ethereal as she ran from me.

  I chased her. The child ran and her slender feet seemed barely to skim the floors. She fled toward the west wing of the house, the least-used part, and thankfully one that was not infested with workmen. She turned down a corridor that led to one of Patience’s gardening rooms. I thought I would catch her there, but she was as fleet as the wind as she threaded her way through urns of ferns and fat pots overflowing with vines. “Bee!” I whisper-shouted her name, but she did not pause. I hopped and twisted through the narrow way, slowed by the obstacles, and watched helplessly as she tugged open a door and dashed outside into a section of garden mazed with hedges.

  I followed. My pursuit and her flight had been a silent one save for the pattering of her feet and my heavier tread. I did not call out her name or bid her stop or come back to me. I had no desire to call attention to my child’s aberrant behavior and my failure to control her. What was wrong with her? And how could I explain it to Riddle to keep him from thinking me neglectful? I was certain he would report back to Nettle and that it would reinforce her insistence that Bee be surrendered to her. As for Shun, I could not think of a worse introduction to Withywoods, Bee, or me than what she had just witnessed.

  The garden on this side of the house had benefited wildly from Patience’s impetuous nature. If there had ever been design or intent applied to the area, either the garden had outgrown it or it was a plan only Patience could have understood. On and on Bee led me through this esoteric jungle of paths, stone walls, birdbaths, and statuary. She danced along snowy pathways in an herb knot, and then sprang over a short picket fence and ran down a pathway sheltered by leafless roses on an arched trellis. Snowy gravel pathways gave way abruptly to mounds of moss and ferns, low walls intersected one another, and in one section elevated pots allowed trailing vines to cascade over a framework above the path, converting the dim winter day to a tunnel draped with greenery. I had always loved the randomness of the garden; for me it spoke of forest, and reminded me of my journey through the Mountains to seek Verity and the dragons. But today it seemed to deliberately hold me back while allowing Bee to slip through as nimbly as a ferret. She entered the shelter of a stand of evergreens.

  And then I caught up with her. She was standing motionless, staring at something on the ground. To her right, the ancient stacked-stone wall that marked the boundary of the estate gardens was thick with dark-green moss. Just beyond it there was a steep forested slope, and then the public road that led to the front entrance of Withywoods and the grand carriageway entrance. I was panting as I caught up to her, and for the first time I realized that she was very familiar with this section of the grounds. I had never thought of my little child playing so near a carriageway, even one so lightly traveled.

  “Bee,” I panted when I was near enough to speak to her without shouting. “You must never again …”

  “The butterfly’s wing!” she exclaimed, pointing. And halted, still as a statue. Her eyes were wide, and when she looked at me, they seemed black edged with blue. “Go,” she whispered softly. “Go to him. ” She gestured with a slender hand and smiled as if giving me a gift.

  A premonition of disaster rose in me so strongly that my heart, which had previously beat fast from my exertion, now raced even faster with dread. I stepped toward where she pointed. A small black animal burst suddenly from nowhere and streaked off into the woods. I shouted in surprise and halted. A cat. Just one of the feral cats of Withywoods, hunting for mice. Only a cat. I took two more steps and looked down.

  There, on the deep bed of shaded moss still mottled with last night’s frost, was a butterfly’s wing the size of the palm of my hand. There were brilliant panels of red, gold, and deep blue separated by dark veins that reminded me of the leading in a stained-glass window. I halted, transfixed by it. Never had I seen a butterfly of such size or brilliance, let alone in the cold days of early winter. I stared.

  “It’s for you,” she whispered. She had eased soundlessly to my side. “In my dream it was for you. Only you. ”

  In a sort of daze, I dropped to one knee by the strange thing. I touched it with my forefinger; it was soft and pliable as the finest silk. Gently I pinched the tip of it between my fingers and lifted it.

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  As I did so, it became something entirely different. Not a butterfly’s wing, but an airy cloak of impossible lightness. It floated like a lady’s veil, and suddenly the colors were revealed as a corner lining of a much larger piece of fabric. The fabric itself was exactly the shades of the moss and the shadows that dappled it, blending perfectly with the ground under the evergreen trees. As I lifted, I revealed more of the gaudy butterfly-wing lining of the cloak, and then I uncovered what had been concealed beneath it.

  The Fool.

  Pale and slight as he had been when we were boys together, he huddled on the bare ground. His arms were drawn in tight to his body and he was curled up, chin tucked to chest. His ice-white hair was loose, some matted to his cheek and some tangled against the deep moss. I hated that his cheek was pressed against the cold earth. A beetle crawled on the moss by his lip. He was not dressed for this weather: He had come here from a much warmer place. He wore a long cotton tunic with a pattern of large rust shapes against a wheat-colored background, over simple loose trousers of a slightly darker color. He had a boot on one foot; the other was bare, dirty, and bloodied. His skin was alabaster, his eyes closed, and his lips pale pink as a fish’s gills. He was still. Then my eyes resolved that the large rosettes on the back of his shirt were actually bloodstains.

  There was a roaring in my ears and darkness at the edges of my vision.

  “Papa?” Bee tugged at my sleeve, and I realized she had been worrying it for some minutes. I was on my knees by the Fool. I could not say how long I had been transfixed there.

  “It will be all right, Bee,” I told her, certain it would be nothing of the kind. “Run along back to the house. I
’ll take care of this. ”

  Some other man took charge of my body. I set my fingers to his throat under the angle of his jaw. I waited and when I was certain there was no pulse, I felt one. He wasn’t dead, not quite. His flesh, never warm to the touch, was cold as meat. I bunched the butterfly cloak around him and lifted him, heedless of his wounds. He’d carried them for some time. Delaying to be careful of them now would not save him, but keeping him longer in the cold might finish him. He did not make a sound. He was very light in my arms, but then, he had never weighed much.

  Bee had not obeyed me and I found I didn’t care. She trotted at my side, crackling questions like a sap log in the fire, very much my child again. I ignored them. Her peculiar fit seemed to have passed. It still concerned me, but not as much as the unconscious man in my arms. I would tend to my crises one at a time. Calmly. Dispassionately.

  Abruptly, I wondered what I was feeling. The answer came to me quite clearly. Nothing. Nothing at all. He was going to die and I was determined to stop feeling anything about it before it happened. I’d had enough pain with Molly’s death. I wasn’t going to feel any more. He had been gone from my life for years. If he’d never come back, I wouldn’t have experienced any new sense of loss. No. There was no sense in feeling anything about regaining him when it was so obvious I was about to lose him again. Wherever he had come from, he had journeyed a long way to bring agony to my door.

  I wasn’t having it.

  I found that somehow I had retraced the whole length of my wild garden chase of Bee. She waited for me by the door to Patience’s garden room. I didn’t look at her. “Open the door,” I said, and she did, and I carried him inside. My mind halted for an instant, fighting to decide what to do, but my body and my daughter did not. She ran ahead of me, opening doors, and I followed her without thinking.

  “Put him there. On that table,” she said, and I realized she had led me to the small workroom where Molly had done her hive-work. It was tidy, as she always left it, but still it smelled of her and her work, the fragrant honey, the wax, even the musky scent of dead bees from when she had cleaned out a wooden hive. It was actually a good choice, for there were cloths, washed and dried and folded, and buckets and …

 
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