Fools assassin, p.46
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       Fools Assassin, p.46

         Part #1 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 169

 

  The Fool had always loved riddles and puzzles, and loved his privacy even more. But this did not feel like one of his pranks. It felt more as if he had sent every bit of information he dared, inadequate as it was, and hoped that I would have the resources to find whatever else I needed to know. Did I? Was I still the person he hoped I was?

  The strange part was that I actually hoped I wasn’t. I’d been a sly, resourceful assassin, capable of spying, running, fighting, and killing. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I could still feel the warmth of the girl’s skin under my thumbs, feel the feebling grip of her hands on my wrists as her struggling gave way to unconsciousness and then death. I’d made it quick for her. Not painless, for no death is without pain. But I’d made the pain much briefer than it otherwise would have been. I’d granted her mercy.

  And I’d once more felt that surge of power one gets when one kills. The thing that Chade and I never discussed with anyone, not even each other. The nasty little burst of supremacy that I continued to live when someone else had died.

  I never wanted to feel that again. Truly, I didn’t. Nor did I want to wonder at how quickly I had decided to grant her the mercy of a swift death. For decades now, I had insisted that I did not want to be an assassin. Tonight I doubted my sincerity.

  “Papa?”

  An assassin flinched and turned his scrutiny on the small girl. For a moment I didn’t recognize her. I struggled to find my way back to being her father. “Molly,” I said, the word bursting from me, aloud, making Bee’s face grow pale so that her reddened cheeks and nose stood out as if splashed with blood. Molly had kept me safe. She had been the waymarker on a different path my life could take. Now she was gone and I felt as if I had fallen over a cliff’s edge and was hopelessly plunging toward ruin. And I had pulled my child over with me.

  “She’s dead,” Bee said in a small voice, and suddenly it was real all over again.

  “I know,” I said miserably.

  She reached up and took my hand. “You were leading us off into the dark and the fog, toward the pasture. Come this way. ” She tugged my hand, and I realized I had been walking toward a misty forested strip of land beside the pasture. She turned us back toward Withywoods where lights shone dim in a few windows.

  My child guided me home.

  We moved silently through the darkened corridors of Withywoods. Across the flagged entrance, up the curved staircase, and along the hallway we softly paced. I paused at the entrance to her room and abruptly recalled that she could not sleep there. I looked at her and hated myself. Her nose was a bright-red button. She wore a winter cloak and boots and, under that, only a woolen nightdress. It was now soaked to the knee. Oh, Bee. “Let’s get you a clean nightgown. Then you’ll sleep in my room tonight. ” I winced at the thought, recalling the boar’s nest that my room had become. No help for it now. I wanted every scrap of bedding in her room destroyed to avoid contagion from whatever horrid creatures the messenger had carried within her. I suppressed a shudder at the thought of the vicious judgment passed on her. So irrevocable. So their punishment for being a traitor was lingering and painful death, one that no apology or explanation would halt. I still was not sure who “they” were, but already I despised them.

  I kindled a candle at her hearth while Bee went to her clothing chest. Her nightgown dragged a wet trail on the floor. She lifted the heavy lid, wedged a shoulder under it to hold it open, and began to rummage through the contents. I glanced around the room. The stripped bed looked stark and accusing. I’d killed a woman in this room tonight. Did I ever want my child to sleep here again? She might not be haunted by what I’d done, for surely she had no idea of it. She would believe the messenger had just died of her wounds. But this killing would bother me for a long time. I didn’t want my daughter sleeping in the bed where I’d killed someone. Tomorrow I’d broach the idea of moving her into a new room. For tonight—

  “Stop! Just stop, please! Leave me alone! Please!” It was Shun’s voice, rising to a shriek on the last word.

  “Stay here!” I barked at Bee and left the room. Shun’s temporary chamber was at the end of the corridor. I was only a few steps down the hall before Riddle, in his nightshirt, knife in hand and his hair standing up in wild tufts, burst out of his room and into the corridor. Shoulder-to-shoulder we ran. Shun’s voice rose again, ascending in terror. “I’m sorry you’re dead. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my fault! Leave me alone!”

  The door to her bedchamber was abruptly flung open and a wailing Shun sprang into the dim hall. Her auburn hair was loose about the shoulders of her nightgown. She had a knife in one hand, a fine and slender blade, and even in her terror she carried it as if she would know how to use it. She shrieked even louder at the sight of us running toward her. Then she recognized Riddle and, breathlessly shouting his name, ran into his arms, narrowly missing the knife he carried. She seemed not to notice when he caught her wrist and with a pinch made her drop her own blade.

  Page 170

 

  “What is it, what’s wrong?” We were both shouting and in response she only wailed and hugged Riddle’s neck so tightly that I thought she would choke him. She had buried her face in his chest and he held his knife well clear of her in one hand while he awkwardly patted her back with the other. She was saying something over and over, but I could not understand her. I stooped and picked up her blade. I recognized the design as one favored for assassin work. Evidently she had not felt her rudimentary training would protect her against a ghost. I tucked it away in my sleeve.

  “I’ll check her room. Keep her safe,” I said to Riddle, but as I moved past them she suddenly lifted her head and shrieked, “Don’t go in there! Don’t go in there! It’s his ghost, crying and crying! He blames me. Rono blames me!”

  I halted, feeling a sick fear spread through me. I am not a superstitious man. I do not believe in ghosts. Yet I almost heard the distant wailing of a lost child. My heart sank and I welcomed Riddle’s words as he said to her, “It was only a bad dream, Shun. You’ve been through a lot, and you’ve carried a lot of fear this past fortnight. Here you are, in an unfamiliar house, wondering what shape your life is about to take. It’s only to be expected that you’d have a bad dream. ”

  She pushed away from him violently. Her voice was indignant. “It wasn’t a bad dream. I wasn’t able to fall asleep. I was lying in bed, thinking, and I began to hear the wailing. It’s Rono. The little wretch was always crying, always whining and begging. Anything sweet or delicious that was cooked for me, he wanted some of it. And even when he was told it was for me, he would keep begging, or he would just steal some of it. And that’s what got him killed!” She was suddenly angry instead of frightened. “He stole from me and ate it, and he died. How can that be my fault?”

  “It wasn’t,” Riddle immediately replied. “Of course it wasn’t. The blame falls on whoever was trying to poison you. ”

  Her sobs changed suddenly, and I wondered how I knew she had gone from terrified to comforted. Her face was buried in his shoulder and she clung to him, her arms wrapped around his neck and her body pressed close to him. He sent me an uncomfortable look over her shoulder. I tried not to scowl. I was not sure what he and Nettle were to each other, but even in this context I did not like seeing him hold another woman. “I’ll check her room. Just to be sure there’s nothing amiss,” I told him.

  She lifted her face. Tears and snot had dismissed any beauty from her face. “I was not dreaming, as I was not asleep! Nor did I imagine it! I heard his crying!”

  “I’ll see to it. ”

  As I walked past Riddle, he passed his knife to me. He quirked one eyebrow in an abbreviated shrug. It was always better to be armed than not, in any situation. “I’ll put her in my room for the night,” he offered.

  “You cannot leave me alone!” she wailed.

  There was deep resignation in his voice as he offered, “I’ll sleep acros
s your threshold, just outside your door. If anything bothers you, I’ll be only steps away. ”

  I was already moving down the hall and did not hear the words of her choked objection. I halted outside the door of her chamber and settled myself. It could be anything or nothing, I reminded myself. I pulled the door open and looked into the room. I unfurled my Wit-sense, reaching out to investigate the room. Nothing. I sensed no human or animal within the chamber. It was not an absolute assurance that Shun had imagined an intruder, but it was reassuring to me.

  Firelight from the low-burning hearth coated the room in honey. The bedding had spilled from the bed and trailed her to the door. I moved inside, stepping softly and listening. What had she heard? For I suspected there would be a grain of truth at least in her complaint. Had the wind whistled through the chimney or past her window? But all was silent save for the muted crackling of the fire.

  I lit a branch of candles and explored the room with them, checking behind curtains and under the bed and even in the still-empty clothing chests. They had been freshly cleaned and held only new sachets. They smelled of cedar and lavender and waited to be used. Shun had not unpacked so much as avalanched into the room. Clothing was everywhere, cascading from her baggage, draped across the foot of the bed and on top of the clothing chests. I scowled at her untidiness. Well, by tomorrow, her maid would be here to set her to rights. Still, it did not please me that a girl of her age did not even know how to be orderly in her unpacking. Her jewelry was scattered across the top of the small vanity, next to a bag of pink and yellow sweets.

  Page 171

 

  Chade had obviously opened his purse for her, and she had taken full advantage of it. What sort of training had he given the girl? She clearly thought much of herself, but no trace of discipline or order did I find in her behavior. How had he looked at her and considered her a candidate to be a spy, let alone an assassin? I wondered where he had found her and why she mattered so much to him. He’d hidden her pedigree well but I was determined to know it now. I’d sniff out his secrets. In my spare time. When I was not looking for the Fool’s misplaced heir. Or accusing my servants of vermin in the bedding. Or repairing the damage I’d done to my daughter. I had not been managing my old life very well. I could not imagine coping with Shun in addition.

  I finished my search carefully, checking that the windows and shutters were tightly closed and that her maid’s adjoining room was innocent of all intruders. There was nothing there. I retreated from her chamber, trying to set my concerns about Shun aside for tonight. Tonight, I would take care of my immediate worries. Tomorrow would be time enough to think about adapting Shun to our simpler habits. Tomorrow … we were well past midnight. Today.

  I took the lit candles with me and went down the hall to where Riddle stood in his nightshirt, his arms crossed on his chest. I had never seen the man look so stubborn. A rumpled kitchenmaid, one of the village girls newly hired to help, stood nearby in her nightrobe and shawl, looking both sleepy and alarmed. Mild stood nearby, disapproval at this uproar stamped on her face. And Shun was complaining loudly. Mentally, I was thankful that Revel had not been roused. Tomorrow would be soon enough to put the house steward in an uproar.

  Shun set her hands to her hips and glared at Riddle. Her dark curling hair was wild on her shoulders and her nightdress strained against her out-thrust chest. “No. I don’t want her sleeping beside me. And what could she do if the ghost came back? Riddle, you are supposed to protect me. I want you to sleep in my room!”

  “Lady Shun, that would not be appropriate,” Riddle replied firmly. I had the feeling was repeating himself. “You wanted a companion for the night? Here is Pansy, ready to serve. And I assure both of you that I’ll be right here, stretched across the threshold should you need any sort of assistance. ”

  “Ghost?” Pansy broke in, her sleepiness vanishing. She turned her shock and appeal on Riddle. “Sir, I beg you, the lady is right! I would be useless should a ghost come into the room. I’m certain I should faint dead away!”

  “I checked Lady Shun’s room. I assure you, there is no intruder and nothing to fear there,” I announced firmly.

  “Of course there isn’t now!” Shun objected. “It was Rono’s little ghost, crying and accusing me! Ghosts cannot be found when you search for them. They come and go as they please!”

  “Rono?” Mild laughed, and then said, “Oh, beg pardon, Lady Shun, but there is no Rono ghost in that room. The only ghost known to walk through those chambers is old Lord Pike. So his parents named him, but all the maidservants in the manor called him old Lord Peek, for he dearly loved to catch a glimpse of any woman in her shift or drawers! My own mother told me that he would hide in the—”

  “No more stories tonight!” I announced firmly. I already knew from the look on Pansy’s face that she would be giving her notice tomorrow. The suppressed amusement in Riddle’s eyes could not lighten my mood. All I wanted was to seek my own bed. I put authority into my voice.

  “Mild, if you would, help Riddle to make up a pallet outside Lady Shun’s door. Lady Shun, if you wish a companion to share this chamber with you, then we are offering you Pansy. No one else. Pansy, you will be paid extra for this service tonight. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all. I am going to my own bed now. There have been enough disruptions after a very taxing day. ”

  “If Rono’s ghost throttles me in the night in vengeance for his death, I hope you will have a good explanation for Lord Chade as to how you failed in your duty to protect me!”

  She threw the stony words at my back. I continued to walk away. I knew I was leaving the burden of sorting it out on Riddle’s shoulders. I knew he could handle it. And he’d had at least some sleep, and had not murdered anyone nor burned a body tonight.

  I opened the door to Bee’s chamber. Empty. So she had had the sense to change her clothing and go to my room. I continued down the corridor. I opened the door to my room and stood still. I could feel that she wasn’t there. The room gave me no Wit-sense of her presence, only chill and emptiness. The fire had almost burned out.

  Page 172

  I lifted my branch of candles high, trying to tell if she had been here. So far as I could tell, nothing had changed since I’d last left the room. Habit made me cross to the hearth and add wood to the fire. “Bee?” I called softly. “Are you hiding in here?” I dragged the rucked blankets off the bed to be sure she hadn’t burrowed in and fallen asleep. The ridged sheets and stink of sweaty male assured me that she would have found it an unappealing hiding spot. No. She had not been here.

  I headed back to her room. All was quiet in the corridor. Riddle opened his eyes and lifted his head as I passed. “Just checking on Bee,” I told him. I was reluctant to let him know that I’d misplaced my own daughter. Just the thought of what he would report back to Nettle about the disorder in my household made me wince. Ghosts and smoking chimneys and a half-trained staff were as nothing compared with misplacing Nettle’s small sister.

  Candles held high, I entered her room. “Bee?” I called softly. Obviously not on the bared bedstead. I knew a moment of fear. Had she crept into the bedding in the servant’s room? I hated myself that I had not taken it and burned it immediately. “Bee?” I cried louder, and two hasty strides carried me to the door of the adjoining chamber.

  Empty. I tried to remember how it had looked when I had last seen it. Had not the bedding been less on the floor and more on the bedstead? I prayed to gods I scarcely acknowledged that she had not touched it. The room was so small that it was the work of a moment to be sure she wasn’t in it. I stepped out of it and then, horror-stricken, rushed to her winter clothing chest. How often had I reminded myself that she needed something smaller with a lighter lid? I knew she had fallen into it, her head smashed, and then suffocated in the dark.

  But all it held was her clothing, in pushed heaps and wads. Relief warred with worry. She wasn’t there. I felt a spasm of annoyance tha
t her clothing was so ill kept. Had the servants abandoned this room when I chased them from mine? In so many ways I was failing my child, but most of all in that I had lost her tonight. My foot nudged something and I looked down at a heap of wet clothing on the floor. Bee’s clothes. So she had changed here. She’d been here and now she was gone. Where could she be? Where would she go? The kitchen? Had she been hungry? No. She’d been unsettled, even scared. So where would she go?

  And I knew.

  I walked past Riddle, feigning a calm I didn’t feel. “Good night!” I wished him wryly. He watched me pass, and then rolled to his feet in a fluid motion.

  “I’ll help you look for her. ”

  I hated his perspicacity, and welcomed it. “You take the kitchens, then. I’ll check my study. ”

  He nodded and was off at a trot. Shielding my candle flames, I followed. At the bottom of the stair, we went our separate ways. I doubled back to go to my private study. All was quiet and dark as I traversed the dark passageways. When I reached the double doors of the study, they were closed. All was still.

  Chapter Eighteen

  Invisibility

  Beloved,

  Was a time when I knew peace in your presence. Though, to be truthful with myself, there were as many times when your presence plunged me into deadliest danger. Or pain. Or fear. But the peace is what I remember and long for. Were you here, I would seize you by the shoulders and shake you until your teeth rattled. What is the meaning of this truncated message you have sent me? Did you fear to entrust too much information? Did you suspect how cruelly your messenger would be hunted, or how she would suffer such a tortured death? What need could compel you to knowingly risk her to such a fate? I ask myself that, and the only answer I can find is that if you did not, she would face a worse one? What, I ask myself, could be worse? And then I wonder what sort of danger you yourself are in right now, that you did not bring this message yourself.

 

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