Fools assassin, p.48
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       Fools Assassin, p.48
 

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

  But I did not know how to reach him now, or how to begin on this quest he had set for me. And I had no idea where to search for his son, or what sort of a person I would be seeking.

  I pushed the thought from my mind. I needed sleep, at least a little sleep, before the dawn came.

  But there was the killing. Ironic, that the one person who had understood how little I wanted to continue as an assassin had been involved in forcing my return to that profession. I did not regret my decision; I remained absolutely certain it had been the correct one. But I resented that I’d had to make such a decision, and was deeply agitated that my child had been forced to witness me disposing of a body, and to bear the burden of keeping that secret.

  When Shun’s ghost hysteria was settled and after I had moved my sleeping child from Molly’s chair to a couch, I had fetched a blanket from my bed and the bit of writing, thinking to study it one more time. But it was worse than useless. I concealed it beneath some forgotten mending in Molly’s sewing basket and looked around her placid room. The fire was down to coals; I fed it. I took a pillow from her chair, and felt guilty about putting the pretty thing on the floor. I lay down in front of the fire and flipped and kicked at the blanket until it somewhat covered me. The stitches of Molly’s embroidery on the cushion pressed into my cheek. I resolved to put all questions and fears out of my head and just sleep. For now there was no immediate threat to me and mine, I had no idea what to do about the peculiar message, and there was nothing I could do about Shun’s dramatics. I closed my eyes and emptied my mind. Clean snow falling on a wooded hillside. I took a deep, steadying breath and told myself there was a hint of deer scent in the crisp wind. I smiled. Do not agonize about yesterday. Do not borrow tomorrow’s trouble. Let your heart hunt. Rest in the now. I filled my lungs slowly and as slowly let the air out. I drifted to a place, not sleeping, not waking. I was a wolf on a snowy hillside, taking in deer scent, and living only in the now.

  Fitz?

  No.

  Fitz? I know you’re awake.

  I’m not, really. My mind drifted against Chade’s, a boat tethered to a dock. I more than wanted to be asleep. I needed to be asleep, to float freely away on that current.

  I felt him sigh in annoyance. Very well. But tomorrow, remember this as more than a dream. I’m sending the lad to you. They beat him badly, and if the city guard hadn’t chanced upon the scene and chased them off, it’s likely they would have killed him. But he’s well enough to ride, or will be in a few more days, and I think my best course is to send him away from Buckkeep as soon as possible.

  Page 177

 

  The windswept winter forest had vanished. I opened my eyes. There was the smell of smoke and burning flesh on my hands and shirt. I should have washed. And found a nightshirt instead of sleeping in my clothes. I was too tired, too tired of all of it to do any of it right. If I’d reported to you like that when I was twelve, you’d have called me an idiot and hit me with something.

  That’s probably true. But I’ve been trying to reach you for hours. What made you put up your walls so stoutly? I began to think you’d taken my advice and sealed yourself against the Skill whenever you were sleeping.

  Probably something I should do. I hadn’t even been aware I’d put my walls up, but suddenly knew when I’d done it. Keeping my walls up around Bee was a habit, but I’d always left a chink for deliberate Skilling. I suppose it had been old instinct to raise them to full resistance during the kill. I’d wanted no chance witnesses to that. Easing into sleep must have lowered them. I told him half a truth. I was preoccupied with Shun. She believes in ghosts and thought her room was haunted by some unfortunate child from her past. Evidently he got the poison that had been meant for her. Not her fault, but when she hears a strange noise at night, it’s hard to convince her of that.

  Is she all right? Anxiety thrummed in his Skilling.

  Much better than the beaten lad, whoever he is.

  FitzVigilant. Who else might I be sending to you to save him from being murdered?

  I don’t know. Anyone who it pleased you to send my way, I suspect. My weariness was making me testy. And it was coming to me now, in pieces, that this news meant I was about to have another orphan on my doorstep. Another addition to my household, one that would be underfoot for years rather than days or months. Another room to prepare. Another horse in my stable, another plate on my table, another person speaking to me when I wanted to be left alone. I tried to muster some sympathy for the poor bastard. So his legitimate brothers have come to court, and his mother wishes to do away with their father’s by-blow?

  Not exactly. She seems to be a woman who plans ahead. Her boys will not come to court until next spring and so I thought I might safely keep him here for a time longer. Evidently she decided to be rid of him sooner rather than later, and is clever enough to attempt it in a way that will not make other folk think her sons were involved. The men she set on him were common ruffians, native to Buckkeep Town. They waylaid him outside a tavern.

  Are you sure then that this wasn’t just a random robbery?

  I’m sure. The drubbing was too thorough and too violent. He was down and they could have easily taken his purse and run. They went past knocking him down, past knocking the fight out of him. This was personal, Fitz.

  Cold seethed through his voice. Personal. The lady had made it personal, attempting to kill a boy under Lord Chade’s protection. There would be some sort of repercussion for her, I did not doubt. I would not ask what it would be or who would carry it out. Would she enter her bedchamber to find it ransacked and her most precious jewelry stolen? Or would it be crueler? I suspected she should keep a tight watch on her sons, or she might find out how it felt to have someone under her protection take a bad beating. Chade could be that cold. I could not. Tonight had brought back all my distaste for killing. Call it vengeance or justice; no matter how it was named, I wanted none of it. Never again.

  A bit of true sympathy for FitzVigilant invaded my soul. Beaten past his ability to fight back. I didn’t like to dwell on that; I had too many memories of situations of that sort. Is anyone accompanying him? To see he gets here safely?

  He hasn’t left yet. I’ve hidden him. And when I send him he will have to travel alone. But I would not have decided to send him if I hadn’t thought he’d be well enough to ride. He had three days of convalescing out of sight of any who might wish to harm him. He has vanished to other eyes. My hope is to make his father’s wife believe she has terrified him enough to make him flee from Buckkeep Castle. She may be content with that. But I need to keep him past the time when she might have people watching for him to flee.

  And if she has not given up by then? If she has watchers and they follow?

  She will first have a task to find him. And those she sends to look may well find something else entirely. A pause in his thoughts and a small hum of cat pleasure.

  I filled it in for him. And if she finds where you have sent him, she will still have to get past me.

  Exactly. So much satisfaction. I was so tired that even the tingle of pride I felt at his confidence in me was annoying. Are you sure that you have not overestimated my ability to shepherd these lost lambs you are sending me?

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  Not at all. I regard your ability as second only to my own.

  I stifled the thought that Shun had nearly been poisoned and FitzVigilant had been severely beaten in Chade’s care. Second only to his own. Oh, yes. I yawned widely enough that my jaw cracked. I tried to keep my mind on what he was telling me. And what does Lord Vigilant think of this, of his lady trying to eliminate his bastard eldest?

  There was just the briefest hesitation. The man has no honor. He is not as attached to the lad as the boy deserves. He would, I think, be relieved. If, indeed, he knows of his lady’s plotting. If he does not, I intend to see that he is fully informed. He will be made to care for the boy’s sa
fety, before I have finished with either of them.

  So. Chade had that end of the situation well in hand. At least that had not been maneuvered into my area of responsibility. I’ll let you know when he gets here. And now I have to sleep.

  Fitz. Are you all right? The Skill conveys emotion as well as thought when one is careless. Genuine concern. He was reading my pain.

  I pushed him gently away. I didn’t want to answer the question. I was emphatically not all right, and he was the last person I wished to discuss that with. I’m very tired. Houseguests. House repairs. And it’s not the time of year when we should be doing these repairs. I should have done them last summer.

  Well, yes, that will teach you not to put things off. And the little one? How is she adapting?

  Bee is fine, Chade. Just fine. And I’m going to sleep. Now.

  I pushed him firmly out of my mind, forming my walls up behind him.

  There was no returning to sleep, and all peace had fled. I watched the shadows from the fire on the ceiling of the room. I tried to think about Molly, without the sadness, but that wound was still too fresh. I refused to think about the messenger or puzzle any more on her message.

  But refusing to think about a thing only brings it more strongly to mind. I thought of the Fool. I tried to pretend I wasn’t angry at him for sending such a cryptic message. I couldn’t, so I stopped thinking about him.

  I rolled to my side and looked at my little girl. Her hair stuck up at all angles. She was huddled into a ball, like a sleeping cub. Her blanket had twisted away from her and I could see that even her little toes were curled in tight to her feet. Sleeping small, hoping to stay hidden. Oh, little one. So small, but not as young as anyone else thought. Especially not after tonight. I’d done that to her. Without thinking, I’d made her my accomplice. Just as Chade had done with me. Years from now, would I be reaching out to her as Chade did to me? Was I repeating yet another cycle, raising an apprentice assassin? Was it the only sort of fathering I knew how to do?

  The Fool had always asserted that time moved in a great circle, but a decaying one, where at every turning humanity repeated mistakes, making them ever graver. He had believed he could use me as his Catalyst to set that great wheel into a better track. He’d had visions of the futures, and out of all the possible futures he could see there had been one, a future in which I survived and together we changed the world.

  And I was back to thinking of the Fool again. I shifted, shifted again, and got up. I built up the fire, tucked the blanket more closely around Bee, and then left as silently as a stalking assassin. Amazing how adept I was at that talent.

  I moved through Withywoods, carrying a branch of candles. I inspected the work that had been done so far in the Yellow Suite, and once more wondered at the temerity of someone who would come as a desperate guest to someone’s home and then complain endlessly about the accommodations. But these rooms, at least, she must love. Earlier in the day, a fire of applewood and cedar had been kindled in the hearth to freshen the room. The fragrance lingered. In the candlelight the yellow walls were a warm gold. When the newly freshened hangings were restored to the bed and the curtains rehung, it would be a cozy retreat for any young woman. Surely she could not imagine a ghost in this warm and welcoming room. I shut the heavy wooden door behind me, comforted that at least this must go right tomorrow. Today, I amended. Today. Dawn was a broken dream away.

  Beyond the Yellow Suite was the Green Suite. I could not recall the last time I had been in those rooms. I opened the door and looked into dimness. Draped furniture breathed dust. Shuttered windows. The hearth was swept clean and had been cold for years. The bed frame was a skeleton, the hanging stored in a cedar chest at its foot. The room had an unused air, but I saw no rodent droppings. I would put the servants to making it habitable tomorrow. By the time FitzVigilant arrived, the rooms would have warmed through. It was not as spacious as the Yellow Suite. There was a little study off the bedchamber and a small room for a servant attached to it; I wondered if he would require one. Was I supposed to supply one? So much I did not know about having a scribe. I would ask Revel. Perhaps he would know. But yes, these rooms would do for FitzVigilant. One more matter solved.

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  Then Bee’s rooms, and here I found a task I must do. Tomorrow I must feign anger about vermin, and demand that bedding be burned and the room scrubbed. That meant that tonight I must remove Bee’s precious things to keep them safe from too thorough a cleansing. There were candles to gather, and her jumping jack and top, and other small items I thought might be precious to her. I took them and hid them in my own bedchamber in the trunk that locked.

  For no reason except that I couldn’t sleep, I went down to the kitchen. The kitchens at Withywoods were smaller and far less busy than those at Buckkeep Castle, but the smells of the bread dough rising and a broth in a covered vat barely simmering at the back of the hearth were comforting to me. I unwrapped the last of the previous week’s bread and cut a chunk, and then went through to the pantry for some sharp cheese from the wheel there. I drew a mug of ale as well and sat down at the kitchen worktable. The kitchen was probably the warmest room in Withywoods. The big hearth in the corner never went cold and the heat from the baking oven in the other wall never completely left the room. I ate and drank and kept my mind on kitchens and cooks that I had known.

  Then I gave up. I folded my arms on the table, put my head on them, and stared into the fire. Why, Fool? Why after all the empty years? Why hadn’t you come yourself? Were you in danger as the messenger had implied? And if you were, why hadn’t you sent a map or instructions as to how to find you? Did you think I wouldn’t come to your aid?

  I woke to thudding that vibrated through my skull. Cook Nutmeg had an immense mound of bread dough on the worktable and was kneading it. Every so often, she would lift one edge of it, fold it over, and then hit it energetically with the palms of her hands. I drew a deep breath and sat up straight. For a moment I felt a boy again, watching the predawn activity of Buckkeep’s great kitchen. But it was only Withywoods, and instead of a score of workers, there were only six. Tavia turned from stirring the morning’s porridge and met my gaze with a raised eyebrow. “Ale a bit stronger than you expected?”

  “I couldn’t sleep. I came down here. And then, I suppose, I found I could sleep. ”

  She nodded, and then respectfully but firmly informed me, “You’re in our way. ”

  I nodded back. “I’ll move,” I said, and stood, stifling a yawn. “It smells so good in here,” I told her, and both of them gifted me with smiles.

  Tavia spoke. “It will smell even better when it’s brought out to table. Lady Shun seemed a bit disappointed with our rustic efforts yesterday, so I’ve told the help that we need to shine today. If that pleases you, sir. ”

  “Shine?”

  “As would make our Lady Molly proud. Time to lift up our heads and be a proper household again. Revel has been chewing his own teeth over how things had begun to go down. So we’re all glad to see you taking more of an interest in the house, sir. And it’s good to have more folk here, to work and to live. Bring life back to the place. ”

  Life. After Molly’s death. I nodded, not sure that I agreed with her, but letting her know I valued what she was telling me. She gave me a firm nod in return, emphasizing that she was right. “Breakfast done proper won’t be ready for another hour or so, sir, but I can bring you some tea if you wish. ”

  “I do wish,” I assured her, and let myself be herded out of her kitchen. My back ached and my head ached and I still smelled of smoke. I rubbed my face and became aware of the growth of whiskers. One of the perils of trying to be clean-shaven for my daughter. I’d have to tend to my face every morning now. “Tavia!” I called after her. “You can wait on the tea. I’ll ring when I’m ready. ”

  Coward that I was, I found one of the little kitchenmaids and sent her to tell my steward I’d found ve
rmin in my daughter’s bed and burned her bedding in the night. I told her to tell him to address it as he thought best, and left it at that. I fled to the steams.

  One of the things I missed most from my boyhood days were the steams at Buckkeep. They were a year-round comfort, warming a man through and through in the depths of winter and sweating sickness out from a body at any time of the year. They were a legacy from Buckkeep’s days as a fortification, with multiple rooms and benches. There were separate chambers for the guardsmen, prone to be rowdy and pugilistic after a night’s drunk, and some for the castle servants, and a different set for the nobility.

  The men’s steams at Withywoods paled by comparison. There was a single chamber, not much larger than my bedchamber, with benches round the walls. The great brick oven that heated it was at one end of the room, and a brick-lined pool of water was in the center of the room. It never pulsed with heat like the steams at Buckkeep, but a determined man could do a good job of cleansing himself there. All the folk at Withywoods, great and small, used the steams. This morning Lin the shepherd was in there with two of his grown sons.

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  I nodded at all three, in little mood for talk, but Lin immediately asked if I had authorized the burning of the brush pile in the night. And so I had to tell the tale of biting insects in my daughter’s bedding and that I had wanted it out of the house and burned immediately.

  He nodded gravely and allowed that he was a man who understood dealing swiftly with such pests, but I saw the looks his sons exchanged with each other. For a short time Lin was silent, and then he asked me if I’d given leave to anyone to camp in the sheep pastures. When I told him no, he shook his head again.

  “Well, it may just have been random travelers, then, and not much to worry if you were the one that set the fire. This morning, I found the top railing on one fence taken down, and the tracks of at least three horses crossing the pasture. No real harm done, and nothing taken. Looks like they left the way they came. The flocks were fine, and I didn’t even hear Daisy or the other dogs bark in the night. So perhaps they were just folk stopping for a time to rest. ”

 
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