Fools assassin, p.43
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       Fools Assassin, p.43
 

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

  And I did. I obeyed him without question that evening. He worked quickly, taking a blanket from my chest and handing me an armful of my mother’s scented candles. He made me walk in front of him where he could see me, and so I led him to his private study. He hurried me there, halting me twice with a grip on my shoulder to pull me aside from where a passing servant might see me.

  When we reached his private study, he shut the door immediately, bolted it, and went straight to the false hinges. “What are you doing?” I asked him.

  “Hiding you,” he replied. He did not speak sharply but with a finality that brooked no questions. He lit one candle for me at the fading fire in the hearth. “In you go,” he told me. And then he followed me in, as if to make sure no spy had penetrated our secret place. I saw his brows lift in surprise at the changes I had made. “You’ve been busy,” he said with grudging admiration.

  “You seemed to have little time for me, so I found something to do. ” I wanted to rebuke him for how he had ignored me, but his smile at the changes I had made warmed me too much. He was proud of me. I could not be as stiff as I wished to be.

  “You’re clever. All of this is well thought out. ” He pushed the lit candle into my holder. Some tension seemed to go out of him. “You’ll be safe here until I am sure that there is no danger to you. I have to leave you here now, but I’ll be back as quickly as I can. ”

  “Will you have to check every room in Withywoods?”

  His eyes darkened as he saw that I understood what he feared. “Riddle will help me. ”

  “So many strangers have come in and out in the last few days. Why do you fear this one so much?”

  “There’s little time to talk, dear. The sooner I’m about this, the faster I can come back for you. But I fear her because I trusted her far too quickly, without thought. She might not be a danger, but danger may have followed her. I was careless. I won’t be again. ” He left me, backing from the small chamber into the narrow corridor. “I have to latch the door behind me. But don’t fear. I’ll be back. ”

  I would have feared, if I had not already prepared my own bolt-hole through the pantry. I watched him go, and then I put my eye to the peephole and watched him close the secret panel. He turned and looked right at me and gave a nod before he left his den.

  So. There I was. I was glad I had thought to provision my hiding place. I sat for a time, mulling over everything that had happened. It was too much for such a short time. Shun. I didn’t like her. My dream-trance. I wondered if I should have been frightened by it instead of exhilarated. Why had I felt that way? I tried to make comparisons for myself. I was like a plant that had bloomed for the first time. No. More like a baby when it first discovers it can reach out with a hand and seize something. A part of me had been growing and today it had finally worked exactly as it was meant to. I hoped it would happen again soon. I wondered why I’d had to explain it to my father. Did not all people have dreams, and thus have dream-trances? I tried to remember who had taught me that dreams were important, that they must be recorded, and that the most important dreams would seize me and hold me until they were fulfilled. I laughed aloud when I realized when I had learned that. I’d dreamed it.

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  I soon began to wish that I had thought to provide myself with some sort of pastime. I took out my journal and wrote a fair account of the last day, but that was done quickly enough. On the best piece of paper I had I wrote an account of the butterfly dream, a much more detailed account than I had ever written before. I set it and my journal back on its little shelf and watched my mother’s candle burn. It was exceedingly boring. I thought back to what Wolf-Father had told me, and my promise. What had my father meant when he told me to stay here? Why, only that I must stay hidden in the wall labyrinth. I assured myself of that several times.

  Then I took a bit of my chalk and wrote on the wall that my father should not worry, I had gone to explore the corridors a bit, and that I would take chalk and an extra candle and mark my way.

  I went first to the peephole that looked into my room, hoping again to find some secret entrance. Again there was nothing I could discover. I had begun to understand the passages and how they wound their ways through the walls of the house. They were best in the oldest part of the house, as if a builder had planned them there. In other places they went only a short way and were almost impossibly narrow or so low that my father would have had to crawl. I worked my way through the one that went past my room and was disappointed to find that there was no peephole into the room that had been temporarily given to Shun. I pressed my ear to the paneling, but could hear little. Maybe someone was weeping in the room. Maybe I was imagining it. I wondered if she was even in the room right now. I had been a bit frightened when my father had first spoken of bringing someone into our home. Now I wasn’t frightened. I was angry. I didn’t like her, I decided in that moment, and justified it by deciding that she didn’t like me, and that she wanted my father’s attention. I wasn’t sure why that made me uneasy, but it did. I needed my father now, more than ever, and it wasn’t right for her to come into our home and take up his time.

  Locating the Yellow Suite was more difficult, but eventually I made my way there. When I judged I was near I held my candle high and was rewarded by the sight of a little door that could be swung to one side. A peephole cover. But when I moved the door, all I found was a small glob of damp plaster pressed through what had been a peephole. The most recent round of repairs to the rooms had involved some plastering. They had covered over the hole. Now, I decided, was not the time to tamper with it. The plasterers might be back the next day, and I did not wish to call their attention to the hole. I would let it dry and later I would return to cut it out like a plug.

  I wandered the hidden maze a bit longer. I visited my pantry exit to be sure it was still as I had left it. While I was there, I filched some dried apples and plums for my hoard. I had climbed onto a barrel to reach the pepper sausages when one of the kitchen cats wandered in. I ignored him. Stripy Cat was not really his name, but it was how he was called. I became aware of his stare as I was trying to clamber on top of the boxes of salt fish to reach the higher shelves in the pantry. I looked down from where I teetered to find him gazing up at me with round yellow eyes. He stared hard, as if I were one of the rats he was supposed to kill. His look froze me where I was. He was a big cat, heavy-bodied and thick-limbed, a cat for the ground rather than a climbing cat. If he chose to leap on me and attack me, I would not be the winner. I imagined those sharp claws sunk into my shoulders and his hind legs ripping at my back. “What do you want?” I whispered to him.

  His whiskers perked forward and his ears tipped toward me. Then he shifted his gaze to a row of bright-red sides of smoked fish hanging from a string stretched across the pantry. I knew why they were hung so high; it was so the cats could not get them.

  But I could reach them.

  I had to stand on my tiptoes to break one free. The flaps of salt-glazed fish had been threaded onto the string like peculiar beads. Once I had my hands on one, I bent it until it broke. When it gave way, I lost my precarious balance and fell from the top of the boxes to the pantry floor. I landed hard on my hip and side, but managed to keep from crying out. I lay for a time, clutching the stolen fish and sausage while breathing past my pain. Slowly I sat up. Bruised, but not much more than that.

  Stripy Cat had retreated to a corner of the pantry but hadn’t fled. He watched me—or more specifically he watched the fish that I still clutched. I caught my breath and spoke softly. “Not here. Follow me. ”

  I stood, hissing at my hurts, and gathered up my dried fruit and pepper sausage. Then, clutching my trove, I dropped to my knees and crawled behind and under my barricade of boxes to where my secret hatch was ajar. Once inside, I moved out of the way and waited. After a few long moments, a whiskered face appeared in the dim circle of light. I moved my candle back and beckoned to him. <
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  Some people talk to cats. Some cats talk to people. It never hurts to try. “If you will follow me in here and spend a day killing rats and mice back here, I will give you this whole slab of fish. ”

  He lifted his striped face, opened his mouth, and turned his face from side to side, taking in the scents of my warren. I know it smelled mousy to me. He made a low noise in his throat, and I felt he approved the prospect of hunting as well as the fish.

  “I’m going to put this up in my den. When you’ve killed the rats and mice, come tell me. I’ll give you the fish and then let you out again. ”

  His round yellow eyes met mine, and I had no doubt that he understood our bargain well. He brushed past me, head down, tail straight. Once his tail was well clear of the hatch, I pulled the small door until it was almost entirely closed. I picked up my candle and took the fish, sausage, and fruit back to my den.

  But even with my explorations, I spent a long and dull afternoon behind the walls. I wished I had stolen more of my father’s old writings to read. I wrote about the cat, took a nap bundled in my blanket, ate some fruit and drank some water, and then waited. And waited. When finally my father returned to open the door for me, I was stiff and sore from being still so long. I had been watching for him, and as soon as he opened the panel, I was out. “All safe?” I asked him, and he nodded wearily.

  “We think so,” he amended. “There is no sign of her anywhere in the house. Though, as you know, it’s a big house with many rooms. None of the servants has commented on seeing her. It’s as if she vanished. ” He cleared his throat. “I confided only to Riddle that we should search the house. He agreed. So the servants know nothing of the missing girl. And I’ve insisted to Shun that she left. ”

  I followed him out of the secret den and out into the corridors of Withywoods. I was silent. I knew hundreds of places to hide in our house. My father could not possibly have searched them all, not even if Riddle was helping him. Surely he knew that. I walked for a time at his side. I thought carefully and then said, “I should like a knife and a sheath, please. Like my mother always wore. ”

  He slowed his stride, and I no longer had to hurry. “Why?”

  “Why did my mother always have a knife?”

  “She was a practical woman, always doing things. She had a knife to cut a bit of string, or trim back a bush or cut flowers, or cut up fruit. ”

  “I can do all those things. Or could, if I had a knife. ”

  “I’ll see about getting you one, and a belt sized for you. ”

  “I should like to have a knife now. ”

  He stopped then and looked down at me. I looked at his feet.

  “Bee. I know that you are a bit afraid. But I will keep you safe. It’s right that you should have a knife, for you are old enough to be sensible with it. But …” He halted, floundering.

  “You don’t want me to stab someone if they’re threatening me. Neither do I. But I don’t want to be threatened and not have anything at all to protect myself. ”

  “You’re so small,” he said with a sigh.

  “Yet another reason why I need a knife!”

  “Look at me. ”

  “I am. ” I looked at his knees.

  “Look at my face. ”

  Unwillingly, I shifted my gaze. My eyes wandered over his face and met his eyes for a moment; then I looked aside. He spoke gently. “Bee. I will get you a knife, and a sheath, and a belt for it that you can wear. More than that, I will teach you to use it, as a weapon. It’s not going to happen tonight. But I will. ”

  “You don’t want to. ”

  “No. I don’t. I wish I could feel like it was something you didn’t have to know. But I suppose you do. And perhaps I have been remiss in not teaching you before this. But I didn’t want you to live that sort of a life. ”

  “Not being prepared to defend myself doesn’t mean I’d never have to fight for my life. ”

  “Bee, I know that is true. Look. I’ve told you what I’ll do, and I will do it. But for now, for tonight, can you trust me to protect you? And let this be?”

  Something tightened in my throat. I spoke to his feet, my voice gone hoarse and strange. “How can you protect me when you are going to be looking after her and keeping her safe?”

  He looked shocked, then hurt, and then tired. I watched out of the corner of my eye as the expressions flitted across his features. He composed himself and spoke calmly. “Bee. You have nothing to be jealous about. Or to worry about. Shun needs our help, and yes, I will protect her. But you are my daughter. Not Shun. Now let’s go. You need to brush your hair and wash your face and hands before we go to dinner. ”

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  “Will Shun be there?”

  “Yes. And Riddle. ” He wasn’t trying to make me trot, but my legs were short. When he walked at his normal stride, I always had to hurry to keep up. I noticed that the house was quieter. I surmised that he had sent the workmen home for the evening.

  “I like it when the house is quiet again. ”

  “I do, too. These repairs will take some time, Bee, and we will have to put up with noise and dust and strangers in our house for a while. But when they have finished, things will go back to being quiet and calm. ”

  I thought about dinner tonight. Shun and Riddle at the table with us. And breakfast the next day. I thought about walking into a room in my home and finding Shun there. Would she walk in the garden rooms? Would she read the scrolls in the library? Now that I thought of her wandering through my home it suddenly seemed as if I could never be unaware of her presence. “How long will Shun be here?” Somehow I doubted that quiet, calm, and Shun would dwell in the same house.

  “As long as she needs to be here. ” He tried to speak firmly but now I heard the dread in his voice. Clearly he had not asked himself that question. I liked that he disliked the answer as much as I did. It made me feel better.

  He escorted me to my room. I washed and combed my hair. When I left the room to go down to dinner, he was outside the door waiting for me. I looked up at him. “I like that you shaved off your beard,” I said. I had noticed it that morning, but not commented on it then. He glanced at me, nodded once, and we walked down to the dining room together. The servants had put us in the big dining hall, but had only lit a fire in the nearest hearth. The other end of the room was a dim cave. Riddle and Shun were already seated at the table, talking, but the vast space of the room devoured their words. “And here we all are,” my father announced as we came in. He had good control of his voice. He sounded pleased that all of us were there.

  He seated me at his right hand, as if I were my mother, drawing out my chair for me and then pushing it in when I perched on it. Shun sat to my right and Riddle to his left. Her hair was pinned up and her dress looked as if she had expected to meet the Queen in our dining room. Her face was freshly scrubbed, but cold water had not bleached all the pink from her eyes. She had been crying. Riddle looked as if he wanted to cry but had a smile hooked to his cheeks instead.

  As soon as we were seated and my father had rung the bell for the food to be brought in, Shun spoke. “You didn’t find any other sign of the stranger?”

  “I told you, Shun, she left. She was an injured traveler, no more than that. Obviously she didn’t feel safe, even here, and as soon as she could move on, she did. ”

  Two men I didn’t know came into the room carrying platters. I looked at my father. He smiled at me. They served us soup and bread and then stood back. “Cor, Jet, thank you. ” As soon as my father spoke the words, they bowed and went back to the kitchen. I stared at him in consternation.

  “I hired more staff, Bee. It’s time we did things a bit more properly here. You’ll soon get to know them and be comfortable with them. They are cousins to Tavia’s husband, and highly recommended. ”

  I nodded but I still felt unhappy about it. The meal went
in stages, and my father was careful to speak to Riddle and to Shun, as if conversation was something he had to share evenly with everyone at the table. He asked Shun if her room suited her, for now. She replied stiffly that it would be fine. He asked Riddle what he thought of the soup, and Riddle said it was as good as that served at Buckkeep Castle. Throughout the meal, he and Riddle spoke only of very ordinary topics. Did he think it would snow more tomorrow? My father hoped the snows would not be too deep this year. Riddle said it would be good if they were not too deep this year. Did Shun enjoy riding? There were some fine riding trails at Withywoods, and my father thought her horse looked like a good one. Perhaps she would like to explore the estate of Withywoods a bit tomorrow?

  Riddle asked if my father still had the gray mare he had used to ride. My father said that he did. Riddle asked if they might go look at her after dinner. He had been thinking of asking my father if she would carry a foal from a certain black stud at Buckkeep for him.

  It was such a transparent excuse for getting my father alone to talk to him that I almost couldn’t stand it. After dinner, we went to a little room with comfortable chairs and a nice fire in the hearth. Riddle and my father left to walk out to the stables. Shun and I sat and looked at each other. Tavia came in with tea for us. “Chamomile and sweetbreath, to ease you to sleep after your long travels today,” she said to Shun with a smile.

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  “Thank you, Tavia,” I said after the silence had fallen and Shun had made no response to her.

  “You are very welcome,” she replied. She poured tea for each of us, and left.

  I took my teacup from the tray and went and sat on the hearth. Shun looked down at me.

  “Does he always let you stay awake and be with the adults?” She obviously disapproved.

  “Adults?” I asked, looking around me. I smiled at her as if puzzled.

  “You should be in bed by now. ”

  “Why?”

  “It’s what is done with children in the evening. They go to bed so that adults can have conversations. ”

  I thought about that, and then looked into the fire. Would my father start sending me to bed in the evening so that he and Shun could stay awake and talk? I took up the poker and hit the burning log with it firmly, sending up a shower of sparks. Then I hit it again.

 
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