Fools assassin, p.42
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       Fools Assassin, p.42

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

  Somewhere in the house, a workman began sawing something. I felt as if he were cutting into my skull. I sat down heavily opposite her. “He was probably thinking you’d be safe here for a time,” I said bluntly.

  Mild came bustling in to set steaming bowls of mutton-and-barley soup before us, with more bread for the basket on the table. “Thank you,” I told her. “This will be all I require. I desire to have some quiet conversation with Lady Shun. ”

  “Of course, sir,” she responded and hastened from the room. I waited for the door to close completely behind her before I resumed speaking. “It’s not the best plan Lord Chade and I have ever cooked up, but for short notice, it’s not a bad one. ” I picked up my spoon and stirred my soup. Chunks of carrot bobbed to the surface and sank again while steam rose in a cloud. I set down my spoon to wait for it to cool and asked her rhetorically, “Can you think of a better one?”

  “Yes. Kill the people who are trying to kill me, so I can live as I wish, where I wish. ” Her response was so immediate that I knew she had considered it for some time.

  I decided to take her suggestion seriously. “It’s seldom as simple as killing one person. First, we must determine who is trying to kill you. And most often, that person is merely the tool, not the instigator. For every one person you kill, chances are you’ve created six new enemies. And you might want to ask yourself why that person must die so that you can live your life as you wish. ” I spoke severely.

  “A question that perhaps you can put to whoever it is before you kill him!” she responded angrily. She pushed her bowl and plate away from her as I broke bread and spread butter thick on it. When I did not speak, she went on, “Why must I pay for the actions of others? Why cannot I live as my birth made me? What did I do that I must be hidden away? As a noble lady’s firstborn, I should rightfully inherit my mother’s titles and lands! But no! No, because she was not wed when I was conceived, her shame falls on me! I pay for her selfish act, condemned to be raised in a backwater hamlet by my aging grandparents, to watch them die and then to be sent off to be pawed by my mother’s lecherous husband. From there, I was banished, near-kidnapped by Lord Chade, and then hidden away from all society for two years! No parties, not a ball, not one single dress from Bingtown or Jamaillia. No. Nothing for Shun, she was born on the wrong side of the blankets! And above all, the person responsible for that must be able to dodge all consequences of it. And then, even hidden away, where I daily feared that boredom would end my life, someone tried to poison me. In my very own home, someone tried to poison me!”

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  Her words had come faster and faster and her voice had become shriller as she spilled out her sad little tale. I should have felt sympathy for her, but her manner of telling it was too self-absorbed. Only with extreme restraint did I prevent myself from leaping up and fleeing the room. I fervently hoped she would not break down into tears.

  She did.

  Her face crumpled like a piece of paper written over with too many secrets. “I can’t live like this!” she wailed. “I just can’t!” She collapsed forward onto the table, her head pillowed on her arms as she sobbed.

  A better man than I could have reached into his heart and found kind words for her. Could have seen her as a youngster suddenly cast adrift from all that was familiar. But of late her words were the very ones I wanted to roar at fate every night as I faced my cold and empty bed. I told her what I told myself. “Yes. You can. Because you have to. There is no real alternative, unless you want to cut your own throat. ”

  She lifted her head from her folded arms. She stared at me, eyes suddenly red, face wet with tears. “Or hang myself. I don’t think I could cut my own throat, but I could hang myself. I’ve even learned to tie that knot. ”

  That, I think, was what made me realize how serious she was. That small bit of information, the step she had taken to be one notch closer to planning her own death. Every assassin knows what his selected exit would be. Not poison for Shun, but the jump from the stool and the snap of her neck, with no waiting, no time to repent the decision. As for me, it would be the slash, the gouting blood, and yes, those few waning moments to say farewell to my life. With a leap of intuition, I knew this was why Chade had sent her to me. Not just because others had threatened her life, but because she was a danger to herself. It incited me to horror rather than sympathy. I did not want the responsibility. I did not want to wake to a maid shrieking that her mistress was dangling from a noose, did not want to Skill such tidings to Chade. It was impossible for me to protect her. What can anyone do for a person who wishes to harm herself? My heart sank at the thought that I must soon search her room. What tools would Chade have supplied to her? Nasty little blades, a garrote … poisons? Had he even considered that in her state, she might use them against herself instead of in her own defense? I felt a flash of anger toward Chade at the bubbling kettle he had sent to my home. Who would be scalded when she finally boiled over?

  She was still looking at me. “You must not do that,” I said feebly.

  “Why not?” she demanded. “It would solve all the problems. Everyone’s life would be simpler. My mother would be happy that her spoiled son would inherit with no cloud on his right. My hidden father would not have to fear that I’d somehow be discovered. And you wouldn’t have an inconvenient half-mad young woman invading your home!”

  She dragged in a sobbing breath. “When I was fleeing to Buckkeep, despite all that had befallen me, I had hope. Hope at last! I’d get away from my life in the shadows. I thought that at last I would be at court, with other young people, with music and dancing and life. Just life! And then Lord Chade claimed me. He said I was in danger and I could not go to Buckkeep, but that in his care, once I had learned an assassin’s skills, well, then I could both defend myself and perhaps the Queen. ” Her voice shrilled higher and choking. “Imagine that! Me, at the Queen’s side, defending her. Standing beside her throne. Oh, I wanted that so much. And I tried to learn all Quiver had to teach me. That awful, smelly woman, and her stupid endless drills! But I tried, and I tried. She was never happy with me. And then Rono died, poisoned, and it was meant for me. And I had to flee again. Sent off I knew not where, with only that ruffian to guard me. This time, I thought, this time surely I will be taken to Buckkeep! But where does Lord Chade put me? Here. I’ve done no wrong, yet here I am, in this drafty place with workmen hammering and where no one cares for me. Where there is no future, nothing lovely and cultured, nothing exciting. Where I’m nothing to anyone, only a burden and a disruption!”

  One always falls back on one’s strongest talents in time of distress. So I lied. “You’re not a disruption, Shun. I know what it is to feel that there is no place that one belongs or is welcome. So I’ll tell you now that, however strange Withywoods may be to you now, you can consider it your home. You won’t be turned out of here, and for as long as you are here, I’ll do everything in my power to protect you. You’re not a guest here, Shun. You’re home. While it may not suit you now, we can make the changes you need. It can be made lovely for you. You can find comfort here. You are welcome for as long as you need to be here. ” I took a breath and added a small thread of the truth. “While you are here, I consider you part of my family. ”

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  She looked at me, her mouth working strangely as if she were gumming food. Then she suddenly flung herself from her chair and launched herself at me, to land against my chest, sobbing loudly. I caught her before we both fell over. Her voice shook wildly as she said, “They tried to kill me with poison. The cook’s little boy stole a tart from the platter, my favorite, a little berry tart, and he died with blood and foam coming out of his mouth. That’s what they wanted to do to me. To make me die that way. Poor little Rono, who’d never done anyone any harm save thieving. He died instead of me, and he died in pain. Little Rono. ”

  She was shaking all over. I held her firmly to keep from
tipping out of my chair. “It wasn’t your fault,” I told her. “And you are safe now. You’re safe. ”

  I wondered if that was true.

  “Papa!”

  I turned my head sharply. Something in Bee’s tone told me that she expected me to be ashamed of myself. She stared at me holding Shun, and then crossed her arms on her chest. “Shun’s very upset,” I told her, but the cold glare Bee was giving me told me that, in her opinion, that excused nothing. When Shun did not try to move clear of me, I managed to stand and sat her firmly in my vacated chair. “Are you feeling better, Bee?” I asked, to build on my falsehood that she had felt ill.

  “No,” she replied icily. “Actually, I feel worse. Much worse. But that isn’t why I came to find you. ” She tipped her little head at me, and I felt as if she were drawing back a bow. “I had to leave my room, just for a few minutes. When I came back … I came to tell you that our other guest is missing. ”

  “Missing?”

  “Other guest?” Shun demanded.

  “Missing?” Riddle echoed. As he entered the room, he looked tousled, as if he had run all the way back from the village. He was still breathing hard as he looked from Bee’s disapproval to Shun’s tearstained face and then at me. “The message I received was that the injured traveler had left. ”

  “Yes. She did. ” I felt like a weathercock as I spun from Riddle to my daughter. “It’s all right. She’s not missing, Bee. She felt better and wanted to go. I should have told you. ” With my eyes, I tried to convey to her that I was lying, and needed her help to be convincing. She glared at me.

  “Injured traveler?” Shun demanded. “There was a stranger here? How do you know she wasn’t an assassin?” She caged her hands over her mouth and looked at all of us with alarm. Her green eyes were huge above her tangled fingers.

  “She was just an injured traveler, one we helped on her way. There’s no cause for alarm, Shun. ” I turned back to Riddle and made a wild leap for normality. “We were just having a bite. Riddle, are you hungry?” It was all I could do to keep my voice level. Tripping over deceit, tangled by my lies. The horrid sinking feeling was all too familiar. Shun’s question had shaken me more than I wanted to betray. How indeed did I know that the young White was truly a messenger, and not someone who meant me and mine harm? Her resemblance to the young Fool had led me to bring her into my home with no thought as to her presenting a danger. And then I had put her in the room adjoining my daughter’s bedchamber. And now Bee said she was missing. And most likely somewhere within the rambling confines of Withywoods.

  Shun had been right. I had definitely lost my edge. I was out of practice at intrigue. My mind raced. The messenger had said that she was being hunted. Had her pursuers entered Withywoods and captured her and carried her off? In the rambling old house, it was entirely possible. I had seen her injuries; it seemed unlikely to me that she could present a real danger to anyone. And equally unlikely that she had simply decided to run away, her message undelivered.

  The silence had hung long in the room. I looked at Riddle.

  “I could eat,” Riddle replied uncertainly. His glance moved from Bee to Shun and then fixed on me. Bewilderment that was all his.

  “Excellent. ” I smiled like an idiot. “I’ll just let the kitchen staff know while you keep Shun company. She’s feeling a bit unsettled at being here. I was trying to assure her that she would be safe now. And welcome. ”

  “Warmly welcomed,” Bee said in a low and venomous voice.

  I concealed my surprise and added, “I’ll be taking Bee back up to her room. She’s obviously not feeling well. ” I reached for my daughter but she sidled out of my grasp and preceded me to the door.

  No sooner had it closer behind us than she spun to me. I saw her chest rise and fall, and to my horror tears welled in her blue eyes as she accused me with, “I only came to tell you she was gone, and what do I see? You hugging that woman!”

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  “Not here. Not now. And you are wrong. Kitchen first. ” This time I was able to seize her narrow shoulder and despite her effort to squirm away from me, I marched her to the kitchen. I tersely informed Tavia of Riddle’s requirements, and left as abruptly as I had arrived, taking Bee with me.

  “Your room,” I said in a low voice. “Now. Stay close to me. And no talking until we are there. ”

  “Is there danger?”

  “Shush. ”

  “What about Shun?”

  “Riddle is with her and he is far more capable than most folks credit him. You are my first concern, always. Be quiet!”

  My tone finally silenced her and she actually slunk closer to me as we wended our way along the corridors and then up the stairs. When we reached the door of her room, I took her by both shoulders and stood her with her back against the wall. “Stay here,” I breathed. “Do not move unless I call you. If I call you, come quietly and immediately and stand just behind my left side. Understand?”

  Her eyes were wide, her mouth hanging open as she gave a short nod. I nodded back.

  I eased the door of her room open. Before I entered, I evaluated all I could see, the bed and hangings, the curtained windows, the hearth. All looked as I had left it. I stepped in silently and checked behind the door before I made a more thorough inspection of Bee’s room. There was no sign of an intruder. The untouched tray was on a stand by the bed. I stepped to the connecting door. It was ajar. I stepped back.

  “Bee. ”

  In a flash she was at my side.

  “Did you leave that door open?”

  She was plainly terrified as she shrugged and admitted in a breathless whisper, “I don’t remember. I think so. No. You did and I didn’t move it. ”

  “Stand still. ”

  I stepped to the door and opened it the rest of the way. The small room was dim, for it had no window of its own. Nothing there but the rumpled blanket on the bed. I ducked to glance under the bed. It was the only possible hiding place in the little room. No one was there. Of our guest, there was no sign save the ewer of water and the bedding pushed into a heap on the wall side of the narrow cot. I stepped back and shut the door. “She’s gone. ”

  “That’s what I told you!”

  “And now I’m certain that she’s not in this room. And that’s all we really know. ” I marshaled my thoughts. “Tell me exactly how you discovered she was gone. ”

  “I stayed in the room here. Tavia brought up the tray of food, and set it on the little table for me. I went in to the girl after Tavia was gone. She was barely awake. I tried to give her some broth, but it only seemed to make her cough. Then she closed her eyes and went back to sleep. I sat here for a time. Then I needed to use the garderobe. So I did. And when I came back here, I went to the room to check on her. But she was gone. ”

  “Gone. ” I thought. “How long were you gone?”

  “Only a few minutes. ” Her eyes were very big.

  “Bee. For the rest of this day, you are at my side. And if I tell you to do something, no matter how strange, you will do it instantly. Understand?”

  She bobbed a nod. Her lips were red against the pallor of her face as she breathed through a half-open mouth. The terror in her eyes was an expression I had never wanted to see on my child’s face. “Why are we afraid?” she demanded.

  “We don’t know if we need to be wary. So, until we do, it is safer for us to be afraid. ”

  Chapter Sixteen

  Honored Guests

  White as ice. Eyes the same color. Hair the same color. They come but seldom, maybe once in every third generation. Or four. But we remember them. They walk among us, and choose one of us. Not as servant or friend, but as a tool to shape a future only that one can see. If (no idea how to translate this word) then they are all of one color.

  Of a time, they breed upon (phrase obscured by stain) either a man or a woman, of their own kind or one of ours. But their offspring are not
of a term that matches our own. So they may leave and it is years later that (this portion of the scroll so badly holed by insects that I can add only isolated words and phrases to it) elderly (a large gap) pale (a gap of I estimate seven lines of text followed by) older than its years. (Another large gap of at least two lines, ending with) more merciful to kill it. (The rest of the scroll scorched away. )

  Partial translation from the desk of FitzChivalry Farseer

  So in that one day and a night and the next, my life changed. I remember how angry I felt about all of it. So many changes, and they all affected me, yet no one asked me if I wanted any of them.

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  No one ever asked me anything in those days.

  First there was Shun, put for now in a room but two doors away from my own and my father’s, until grander chambers could be prepared for her. My father had ordered that the Yellow Suite be renovated for her. She would have a bedchamber, a small sitting room, a room for her maid, and another room “to do whatever she wanted with” as my father put it. I had always loved the Yellow rooms and had often crept in there to play. No one thought to ask me if I would have liked to have a set of rooms like those. No. A single bedchamber and a tiny adjoining room for a nonexistent nursemaid were considered enough for me. Yet a stranger came to our home, and my father brought in a whole army of carpenters and stonemasons and cleaning staff, and even a maid to wait only on Shun.

  Then there was the peculiar stranger he had put into the little room that opened to mine. He did not ask if he might put her there, he had simply done it. I had told him I understood why, and thought that he might thank me for being so understanding of how rude he had been. Instead he had just nodded curtly as if he expected me to simply accept anything he did. As if I were his conspirator in some plot rather than his own daughter. Certainly he expected me to support his lies to Riddle and Shun. And to obey him exactly after he discovered that I had told him the exact truth: The butterfly girl was gone.

 
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