Fools assassin, p.45
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       Fools Assassin, p.45

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

  “It will come to that. My companion searched the wounds. I told you. What went in won’t come out. ”

  “A poison?”

  She shook her head. “Eggs. They’ve hatched now. They’re eating me. ” She winced and coughed again. “Sorry. Burn bedding. With me. ” Her eyes opened and her blank gaze wandered over the room. “You should put me outside. They bite and burrow. And lay eggs. ” She coughed pink. “Punishment for traitor. ” She blinked, and drops of red oozed from the corners of her eyes. “Treason is unforgivable. So punished with unstoppable death. Slow. It takes weeks. “She shuddered and then squirmed. She looked up at my father. “The pain is building. Again. I can’t see. They’re eating my eyes. Are they bloody?”

  I heard the sound of my father swallowing. He sank down beside the bed until his face was on a level with the girl’s. A stillness had taken his face; I could not tell if he felt anything. He asked quietly, “Are you finished, then? That was the whole message?”

  She nodded. She rolled her head to meet my father’s gaze but I knew she could not see him. Blood in ruby drops clung to her eyelashes. “I’m finished. Yes. ”

  My father lurched to his feet. He turned as if he would run from the room. Instead he snatched up the empty ewer. He spoke sternly. “Bee. I need cool fresh water. And bring some vinegar in a cup. And …” He paused to think. “Go to Patience’s garden room. Bring me two double handfuls of the mint that grows closest to the statue of the girl with the sword. Go. ”

  I took the ewer and a candle in a holder and went. The darkness made the corridors longer. The kitchen was a place of lurking shadows. The vinegar was in a large crock, and the containers to carry it all up out of my reach. I had to push benches and climb. I left the heavy ewer of water and the vinegar and threaded my way through the sleeping house to Patience’s garden room. I found the mint and tore at the plants recklessly, filling a fold of my nightshirt with the aromatic leaves. Then I trotted back to the kitchen, candle in one hand and the other holding my hiked-up nightshirt with the mint. In the kitchen I tied up the mint in a clean cloth and gripped the knot in my teeth. I abandoned my candle to clutch the heavy ewer in one arm and the vinegar in my other hand. I hurried as fast as I could, trying not to think of maggots eating me from the inside. By the time I reached the door of my room and set everything down to open the door, I was out of breath. I felt as if I had been running for the whole night.

  A horrifying sight met my eyes. My featherbed was on the floor. My father knelt beside it. He had his boots on, and his heavy cloak was on the floor beside him, so he must have gone back to his room. He had torn one of my coverlets into strips and was using them to tie the bundle he was making. His face was gray when he looked up at me. “She died,” he said. “I’m taking her outside to burn her. ” He had not paused in his feverish bundle making. My featherbed was taking on the shape of an immense cocoon. There was a dead girl inside it. He looked away from me and added, “Strip to the skin, here. Then go to my room. You can find one of my shirts to sleep in. Leave your nightshirt here. I’m going to burn it with her. ”

  I stared at him. I set the ewer down, and the vinegar. The bundled mint fell from my shirt to the floor as I let it drop. Whatever medicine he had intended to make, it was too late now. She was dead. Dead like my mother. He pushed another strip of blanket under the bundle, brought up both ends, and snugged it tight in a knot. My voice came out very little. “I’m not going naked through the corridors. And you can’t do this all alone. Should I get Riddle to help you?”

  “No. ” He squatted back on his heels. “Bee. Come here. ” I went to him. I thought he was going to hug me and tell me it would be all right. Instead he had me bend my neck, and he looked all through my shorn hair. Then he rose, crossed to my clothing chest, and opened it. He took out last year’s wool robe. “I’m sorry,” he said when he came back to me. “But I have to keep you safe. ” He took the hem of my nightshirt and stripped it off me. Then he looked at me, all over, under my arms and at my bottom and between the toes of my feet. We were both very red in the face before he was finished. Then he gave me the wool robe and took my nightshirt to add to his bundle. “Pull on your boots and a winter cloak,” he told me. “You’ll have to help me. And no one can ever know what we do tonight. No one can know the message she brought. Or even that we found her again. If other people know, that child will be in greater danger. The boy she spoke about. Do you understand that?”

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  I nodded. In that moment I missed my mother more than I ever had before.

  Chapter Seventeen

  Assassins

  There is, in all honesty, no way to kill someone mercifully. There are those who count it no crime to drown an imperfect newborn in warm water, as if the infant will not struggle desperately to draw air into its lungs. Did it not try to breathe, it would not drown. But they do not hear the screams nor feel the darkening of the mind that the child endures, so they have been merciful. To themselves. This is true of most “mercy killings. ” The best an assassin can do is create a setting in which he does not have to witness the pain he causes. Ah, you will say, but what of drugs and poisons that send a man into a deep sleep from which he never emerges? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I suspect that some part of the victim knows. The body knows it is being murdered, and it keeps few secrets from the mind. The strangler, the suffocator, the exsanguinator may all claim that their victims did not suffer. They lie. All they may truly say is that the victim’s suffering was invisible to them. And no one returns to say they were wrong.

  Merjok’s Two Hundred Seventy-Nine Ways to Kill an Adult

  As I carried her body down the stairs, my little darling trotted before me bearing a candle to light my way. For one terrible moment I felt grateful that Molly was dead and could not witness what I was demanding of our child. At least I had created a long enough diversion that she had not witnessed me killing the messenger. I had used the two blood points in her throat. When I first placed my hands, she had known what I was doing. Her blind and bloody gaze had met mine, and for a moment I read relief and permission on her face. But then, as I applied the pressure, she had reflexively reached up to seize my wrists. She had struggled, fighting for a few more moments of pain-riddled life.

  She was too weakened to put up much of a fight. She managed to scratch me a bit. It had been a long, long time since I had killed anyone. I’d never anticipated killing with arousal, as some assassins do. I’d never made it my joy in life, my fulfillment, or even my cherished goal. I’d accepted it as my task in life when I was very young, and I’d done it, efficiently and coldly, and tried not to think too much about it. That night, even with the messenger’s initial permission, even with the knowledge that I was saving her from a lingering and painful death, was probably my worst experience as an assassin.

  And here I was, making my small daughter a party to it, and binding her to silence. Had I sought righteously to keep Chade and Kettricken from dragging her into being a Farseer with all the attendant history? They certainly would not have exposed her to anything like this. I had been so proud of how long it had been since I’d killed anyone. Oh, good work, Fitz. Don’t let them put the burdens of being a Farseer on those thin shoulders. Make her an assassin’s apprentice instead.

  On an estate like Withywoods there is always, somewhere, a pile of brush and branches waiting to be burned. All end up heaped somewhere out of the way. Ours was at the far side of the lambing pens in a pasture. I carried the bundled messenger and led the way through the tall, snowy grass and the winter night. Bee walked silently behind me. It was an unpleasant walk in the dark and wet. She followed in the trail I broke. We came to a snow-edged mound of brambly and twiggy branches, thorn bushes cut and thrown here, and fallen branches from the trees bordering the pasture that were too skinny to be worth cutting into firewood. It was an ample pile for my task.

  There I set down my load, and the bundled body tipped unev
enly onto the pile. I pulled the branches over her and made the pile more compact. Bee watched. I thought perhaps I should send her back, tell her to go to my room and sleep. I knew she wouldn’t and suspected that actually witnessing what I had to do would be less horrific than imagining it. Together we went to fetch oil and coals. She watched me fling the oil over the branches and pour it generously over the wrapped body. Then we set it alight. The evergreen branches and brambles were resinous; they caught fire quickly, and their flames dried the thicker branches. I feared they would consume themselves before the body was gone, but the oily featherbed caught and burned well with a harsh stink. I brought more branches to throw on our bone fire, and Bee helped. She was always a pale little creature, and the chill black night chalked her. The red firelight dancing on her face and shock of hair made her some strange little death sprite from an old tale.

  The pyre burned well, the flames reaching up higher than my head. Their light pushed the night back. Soon my face was uncomfortably warm and my back still cold. I braced myself against the heat to push the ends of branches in and to add more to the conflagration. The fire spoke, crackling and hissing when I threw on a frost-laden branch. The flames ate our secret.

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  Bee stood next to me, but not touching me, and we watched the messenger burn. It takes a long time to burn a body. Most of it we spent in silence. Bee had little to say, other than, “What shall we tell the others?”

  I sorted my thoughts. “To Shun, we say nothing of this. She believes the girl left. To Riddle I will say that I found her dead and feared a contagion so I burned her body. To the housekeeping staff I will say that you complained of itchy bites and I found vermin in your bed when I was putting you in it and decided to burn it immediately. ” I gave a small sigh and admitted, “It won’t be fair to them. I must pretend to be very upset with them. I will demand that every bit of your clothing be washed fresh, and new bedding brought for you. ”

  She gave a single nod. She turned her eyes back to the fire. I gathered another armful of branches and threw them onto the blaze. The half-burned limbs gave way under this fresh weight, crumpling down on the embered remains. The featherbed whispered away as downy ash. Were those blackened bones or blackened branches? Even I could not tell. The faint smell of roasting meat sickened me.

  “You are very good at this. You have thought of everything. ”

  Not a compliment I wanted to receive from my little daughter. “I used to have to do … special work. For the King. I learned to think of many things at once. ”

  “And to lie very well. And not let people see what you are thinking. ”

  “That, too. I’m not proud of it, Bee. But the secret that we heard tonight is not mine. It belongs to my very old friend. You heard what the messenger said. He has a son, and that son is in danger. ” Could she hear in my voice how peculiar I found this news? The Fool had a son. I had never been absolutely certain of his masculinity. But if a child had been born, it must have come from a woman’s womb. That meant that somewhere, that son had a mother. A woman whom, presumably, the Fool had loved. I thought that I had known him better than any other person ever had. And yet this was something I never would have suspected.

  The woman would be my beginning point. Who was she? I racked my brains. Garetha came to mind. She had been a gardener’s maid when the Fool and I were children. Even then she had been enamored of him. As a youngster he had been a lithe and playful fellow, turning handsprings and flips and doing the juggler’s tricks expected of a jester. He had been quick-tongued. Often his humor had been cruel to those he felt could be well served by being taken down a notch or two. With the very young or those not treated kindly by fate he had been gentler, often turning his jests back on himself.

  Garetha had not been pretty, and he had been kind to her. For some women, that is all it takes. In later years she had recalled him, recognized him in his guise of Lord Golden. Had there been more than recognition? Had that been how he had persuaded her to keep his secret? If they had had a child, the boy would be in his mid-twenties now.

  Was she the only possibility? Well, there were whores, and ladies of pleasure in plenty in Buckkeep Town, but I could not imagine the Fool frequenting them. It had to be Garetha … Then my thoughts stepped sideways, and I suddenly saw the Fool in a different light. He had always been a very private person. He might have had a hidden lover. Or a not-so-secret one. Laurel. The Witted huntswoman had made no secret of her attraction to him. He had spent years away from Buck, in Bingtown and possibly Jamaillia. I knew next to nothing of his life there, save that he had lived in the guise of a woman.

  And then the obvious fell into place and I thought myself a great dunce. Jofron. Why had he written to her? Why had he warned her to guard her son? Perhaps because he was their son? I reorganized my memories of Jofron and the Fool. Close to thirty-five years ago, when the Fool found me dying in the Mountains, he had taken me to his little home. He’d had a little Mountain house that he shared with Jofron. He had moved her out when he took me in. And when he had left to go with me on my quest, he had left everything he owned there for her. I thought of how she had reacted to me the last time we met. Could I interpret her ways toward me as the reaction of a lover who had been spurned for a friend? She had seemed to enjoy showing me that he had written to her while sending me no word.

  I reached back to those feverish days, remembering her voice, the adoring way she spoke of her White Prophet. I had deemed it a sort of religious fervor. Perhaps it had been a different passion. But if she had borne him a child, surely he would have known for a certainty. He had sent her messages. Had she ever replied to them? If he’d left a child there, the boy would be a year younger than Nettle. Surely not a child that needed my protection? And the grandson who had been there had looked nothing like the Fool. Surely if he were the Fool’s grandson, his White heritage would have shown somewhere. The Fool’s grandson. For a long moment, those words seemed impossible to fit together.

  Page 168

 

  I pondered it as the flames ate her bones. The messenger’s words made little sense. If the Fool had fathered a child the last time he’d been in Buckkeep, his son would be a young man, not a little boy. It didn’t make sense. The messenger had called him a boy. I recalled how slowly the Fool had grown, how he had claimed to be decades older than I was. There was so much I didn’t know. But if it was the way of his kind to age slowly, perhaps the son he had left behind still appeared to be a child? Then it could not be Jofron’s son, who had fathered a boy of his own. Had he sent her a warning because he feared the hunters would pursue any child who might remotely be the Fool’s son? My mind ran in circles, trying to build a tower with too few blocks. Surely, if it was Jofron’s son, he could have told me, with dozens of clues that only I would recognize. Call him the Toymaker’s son, and I’d know him. But surely that was true of any son? The gardener’s boy, the huntswoman’s child … we’d known each other so well. Any child he’d left, surely he could have identified to me. If the Fool knew for sure where the child was … Was he sending me on a wild goose chase to find a child reputed to exist on the basis of some obscure White prophecies? He wouldn’t do that to me. No. Almost certainly he would. Because he could believe that I could find such a child. Was it even the Fool’s son? I sifted the messenger’s meager words again. An unexpected son. Once, he had told me, those words referred to me. And now? Was there another “unexpected son” somewhere? Could I be certain this boy was the Fool’s son? Her knowledge of my language had been less than perfect …

  “Papa?” Bee’s voice was shaking, and when I turned to her, I saw that she had wrapped her arms around herself and was shivering with cold. “Have we finished?” Her nose was red at the tip.

  I looked at our fire. The last load of branches I had put on it collapsed suddenly. How much would be left of the girl? The skull, the heavier thighbones, the column of spine. I stepped forward to
peer into the heart of the fire. They were covered with ember and ash. Tomorrow I’d bring the bedding from the nurse’s bed in the room adjacent to Bee’s and burn it here. Tonight, it was enough. I hoped. I looked around us. There was a moon, but layers of clouds veiled it. An icy mist hung over the low and boggy pasturelands. What moonlight reached the ground there was claimed by the fog.

  “Let’s go back in. ”

  I held out a hand to her. She looked at it, and then reached up to put her small fingers in mine. They were cold. Impulsively I scooped her up. She pushed against me. “I’m nine. Not three. ”

  I released her and she slid to the ground. “I know that,” I said apologetically. “You just looked so cold. ”

  “I am cold. Let’s get back inside. ”

  I didn’t try to touch her again, but contented myself that she walked along beside me. I thought of the morrow and felt heavy with dread. It would be complicated enough without dealing with Shun and Riddle also. I dreaded that I must falsely report an infestation, for I knew the scurrying and scrubbing that would follow. Revel would be beside himself; the entire staff would be chastised. The laundering would be endless. I thought of my own room and winced. I’d have to subject myself to an invasion of housekeepers, or my accusations would ring false. And I did not want even to imagine Shun’s outrage and disgust at the idea that her bedding might harbor vermin. Well, there was no help for it. My excuse for burning Bee’s bedding in the middle of the night must be convincing. No avoiding the lies I must tell.

  Just as there had been no way to avoid exposing Bee to all this cascading debris from my old life. I shook my head at how poorly I had protected her. All I wanted to do right now was to be alone and try to think through what it all meant. The thought that the Fool had reached out to me after all these years was overwhelming. I tried to sort the emotions I was feeling and was startled to find that anger was one of them. All those years, with no word from him and no way for me to reach out to him. And then, when he needed something, this imperious and life-disrupting intrusion! Frustration vied with a terrible desire to see him after all these years. The message seemed to indicate that he was in danger, restrained from traveling or spied upon. Injured somehow? When last I had seen him, he had been so anxious to return to his old school, to share with them the end of the Pale Woman and all he had learned during his long travels. To Clerres. I knew no more of that place than its name. Had he come into conflict with the school? Why? What had become of the Black Man, his traveling companion and a fellow White Prophet? The messenger had made no mention of Prilkop at all.

 
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