Fools assassin, p.5
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       Fools Assassin, p.5

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

  “Thank you, Revel,” I told him and left him with a clap on his shoulder. I moved swiftly down the corridor, already reaching for Nettle with my Skill-magic. The moment our thoughts touched, my daughter’s outrage blasted into my mind. Riddle told me. How dare anyone do this in our home! Is Mother safe?

  She is. I’m on my way down. Revel is on watch on her door, but I’d like you or one of the boys to take his place.

  Me. I’ll make my excuses and be right up. A heartbeat’s pause, then, fiercely, Find who did this!

  I intend to.

  I think she took satisfaction in my cold assurance.

  I moved swiftly through the corridors of Withywoods, every sense alert. I was not surprised when I rounded a corner and found Riddle waiting for me. “Anything?” I asked him.

  “Nettle’s gone up to her mother’s room. ” He glanced past me. “You know that you were probably the target in some way. ”

  “Perhaps. Or the messenger herself, or the message she bore, or someone seeking to do injury to whoever sent the message by delaying or destroying it. ”

  We were moving swiftly together, trotting side by side like wolves on a trail.

  I loved this.

  The thought ambushed me and I almost stumbled. I loved this? Hunting someone who had attacked someone else in the sanctity of my own home? Why would I love that?

  We always loved the hunt. An ancient echo of the wolf I had been and the wolf who was still with me. The hunt for meat is best, but any hunt is always the hunt, and one is never more alive than during the hunt.

  “And I am alive. ”

  Riddle shot me a questioning glance, but instead of asking a question he gave me information. “Revel himself took the food and tea to the messenger. The two pages who were on the front door recall admitting her. She came on foot, and one says that she seemed to come from behind the stable rather than up the carriageway. No one else saw her, though of course the kitchen staff recall making up a tray for her. I haven’t had a chance to go out to the stables and see what they know there. ”

  I glanced down at myself. I was scarcely dressed to appear before our guests. “I’ll do that now,” I said. “Alert the boys. ”

  “Are you sure?”

  “It’s their home, Riddle. And they are not really boys anymore. They’ve been talking of leaving for the last three months. In spring I think they’ll fly. ”

  “And you have no one else to trust. Tom, when this is over, we are going to talk again. You need a few house soldiers, a few men who can be brutes when the situation calls for it, but can open a door and serve wine to a guest as well. ”

  “We’ll talk later,” I agreed, but grudgingly. It wasn’t the first time he had pointed out to me that I should have some sort of house guard for Withywoods. I resisted the idea. I was no longer an assassin, living to guard my King and carry out his quiet work. I was a respectable landholder, a man of grapes and sheep now, a man of plows and shears, not knives and swords. And there was, I had to admit, my conceit that I could always protect my own household against whatever limited threats might find their way to my door.

  But I hadn’t tonight.

  I left Riddle and trotted through the halls on my way to the stables. There was, I told myself, truly no indication that whatever bloodshed there had been was deadly. Nor did it have to be related to me or to my own. Perhaps the messenger had enemies of her own who had followed her. I reached a servants’ entrance, pushed open the heavy door, and dashed across the snowy courtyard to the stable door. Even in that brief run, I had snow down the back of my neck and in my mouth. I slid back the bar on the stable doors and pushed one open just enough to slip in.

  Inside was the warmth of stabled animals, the pleasant smell of horses and soft light from a shielded lantern on a hook. In response to my entrance, Tallman was already hobbling toward me. His son, Tallerman, supervised most of the work of the stables now, but Tallman still considered himself in charge. On days when there was a great deal of coming and going, as there was tonight, he rigorously controlled which animals were stabled where. He had strong feelings about teams left standing all evening in harness. He peered at me through the gloom of the stable and then gave a start as he recognized me. “Holder Tom!” he cried in his cracking voice. “Shouldn’t you be dancing with the fine folk in the Great Hall?”

  Like many another oldster, his years had diminished his regard for the differences in our status. Or perhaps it was that he’d seen that I could shovel out a stall with the best of men, and he therefore respected me as an equal. “Soon enough,” I replied. “The dancing will go on till dawn, you know. But I thought I would wander out here and be sure all is well in the stable in such a storm. ”

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  “All’s well here. This barn was built sturdy two decades ago, and it’ll stand for a dozen more, I reckon. ”

  I nodded. “Steward Revel tells me that you had visitors here tonight, ones that made you uneasy. ”

  His querying look changed to a scowl. “Yes. If you act like a horse thief, I’ll speak to you like you’re a horse thief. Don’t come prying and peeking around my stables and then tell me you’re a minstrel. They were no more minstrels than Copper there is a pony. They didn’t smell right to me, and I took them right up to the door. ” He peered at me. “That Revel fellow was supposed to warn you. You didn’t let them in, did you?”

  Hard to admit it. I nodded once. “It’s Winterfest. I let everyone in. ” I cleared my throat at his lowering stare. “Before that. Did you notice anyone else here at the stables, anyone odd?”

  “You mean that foreign girl?”

  I nodded.

  “Only her. She came in here like she thought it was the house. ‘I need to speak to the master,’ she told one of the hands, so he brought her to me, thinking she wanted me. But she looked at me and said, ‘No, the master with the crooked nose and the badger’s hair. ’ So, begging your pardon, we knew she meant you and sent her up to the house. ”

  I dropped my hand from where I’d touched the bridge of my nose and the old break there. This was just getting odder and odder. A vanished messenger who had come seeking me with only a description rather than my name. “That’s all?” I asked.

  He frowned thoughtfully. “Yes. Unless you want to hear about Merchant Cottleby trying to get me to stable his horses here when both have signs of mange. Poor creatures. I put them under shelter in the woodshed, but they’re not getting anywhere near our stock. And if his driver wants to complain, I’ll tell him what I think of his horsemanship. ” He looked at me fiercely, as if I might challenge his wisdom.

  I smiled at him. “A small kindness, Tallman, for the horses’ sake. Pack them up some of the liniment you make. ”

  He stared at me a moment, then gave a short nod. “Could do that. Not the beasts’ fault they’re ill cared for. ”

  I started to leave, then turned back. “Tallman. How long between the time the girl arrived and the three you took for horse thieves?”

  He lifted his gaunt shoulders and then let them fall. “She came before Caul Toely arrived. Then came that tailor fellow, and the Willow sisters on those matched ponies of theirs. Those ladies never ride in a carriage, do they? Then the Cooper boys and their mother, and …”

  I dared to interrupt him. “Tallman. Do you think they were following her?”

  He stopped. I waited impatiently as he weighed what he knew. Then he nodded, his mouth tight. “I should have puzzled that out for myself. Same sort of boots, and they came right to the barn and were trying to peek in. Not looking for horses to steal, but following that girl. ” His eyes met mine angrily. “They hurt her?”

  “I don’t know, Tallman. She’s gone. I’m going to go see if those three are still here. ”

  “You do that. If they aren’t there, they can’t be far, in this weather. You want I should send a lad to Stocker’s Holding, ask to borrow their tracking dogs?” He
shook his head and added sourly, “I’ve said many a time, it wouldn’t hurt us to have our own hunting pack. ”

  “Thank you, Tallman, but no dogs. The way the snow is coming down, I doubt there’s any trail to follow. ”

  “You change your mind, Tom, you let me know. I can have my son go fetch those hounds in a heartbeat. And”—and now he was calling after me as I beat a retreat—“if you come to your senses about keeping our own dogs, you let me know! I know a great bitch, will have her pups by spring! You just let me know!”

  “Later, Tallman!” I shouted the words back to him, and got a mouthful of snow for my trouble. The snow was still coming down, and the wind was rising. I suddenly felt certain that those I sought were still within Withywoods. No one would be desperate enough to try to flee during this storm. I reached for Nettle. Is all still well with your mother?

  I left her sleeping, with Hearth sitting in a chair by her fire. I told him to latch the door behind me, and I heard him do it. I’m with Riddle and Just, and our guests. We have discovered nothing out of the ordinary. There is no sign of the messenger.

  Dead? Fled? Hiding within Withywoods? It had to be one of the three. There were three minstrels who came late. Two men and a woman. Web seemed unsettled by them. Are they still among our guests? I pictured them for her in my mind.

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  I saw them earlier. But they did not look like musicians to me, nor behave like them. They gave no indication of wanting a turn on the dais.

  Send Just to me, please. We’re going to do a quick search of the unoccupied wings. And let me know if you and Riddle find the three strangers.

  Just and I divided Withywoods and went room-to-room, looking for any sign of intrusion in the unoccupied areas of the manor. It was not an easy task in the rambling old place, and I relied on my Wit as much as my eyes to tell me if a room was truly empty. Nettle and Riddle found no sign of the three strangers, and when she asked our other guests if they had seen them, the responses were so conflicting as to be useless. Even our servants, who sometimes irritated me with the close attention they paid to family doings, had nothing to report. The three and the messenger were as gone as if they had never visited us at all.

  Toward the small hours of the morning, when our guests were sated with food and music and were departing for their homes or seeking the chambers we had offered them, I called off the search. Riddle and the lads joined Revel in seeing that all the outside doors were secured for the night, and then made a quiet patrol of the south wing, where we had housed our guests. While they were doing that, I resolved to slip off to my private den in the west wing. From there I could access a spy-network that only Patience, Molly, and I knew existed. It was my low intention that I would wander it tonight and peer in on our sleeping guests to see if anyone had offered the strangers shelter in their rooms.

  Such was my intent. But when I reached the doors of my study, the hackles on my neck arose. Even before I touched the door handle, I knew it was not quite latched. And yet I recalled clearly that I had shut the door behind me before I had followed Revel to join Riddle. Someone had been here since I last left it.

  I drew my knife before I eased the door open. The interior of the room was dim, the candles guttering out and the fire subsiding. I stood for a time, exploring the room with my senses. There was no one inside, my Wit said, but I recalled that earlier the strangers had been almost transparent to Web, a man with a much more finely tuned magic than I possessed. And so I stood, ears pricked, and waited. But it was what I smelled made me angry. Blood. In my den.

  My knife led the way as I advanced. With my free hand I kindled a fresh candle and then poked up the fire. Then I stood still, looking around my room. They had been here. They had come here, to my den, someone’s blood still wet on them.

  If Chade had not trained me through a thousand exercises to recall a room exactly as I had left it, their passage might have been unnoticeable. I smelled a brush of blood on the corner of my desk, and there was a small smear of browning red where my papers had been shifted. But even without the scent of blood and its tiny traces, they had been here, touching my papers, moving the scroll I’d been translating. They’d tried to open the drawer of my desk, but had not found the hidden catch. Someone had picked up the memory-stone carving the Fool had made for me decades before and put it back on the mantel with the facet that showed my face looking out into the room. When I picked it up to correct it, my lip lifted in a snarl. On the Fool’s image, a clumsy thumb had left blood smeared down his cheek. The surge of fury I felt was not rational.

  When I lifted it, I felt the tide of the memories stored in it. The Fool’s last words to me, stored in the stone, tugged at my recollection. “I have never been wise,” he had said. A reminder of the recklessness of our youths, or a promise that someday he would ignore caution and return? I closed my mind against that message. Not now.

  And foolishly, I tried to swipe the blood from his face with my thumb.

  Memory stone is peculiar stuff. Of old, Skill-coteries had traveled to a distant quarry in the Mountain Kingdom where they carved dragons from it, imbuing the stone with their memories before being absorbed into their creations to give them a semblance of life. I’d seen it happen, once. Verity, my King, had given himself to a stone dragon, and then risen in that guise to bring terror and war to the enemies of the Six Duchies. On Aslevjal Island I’d discovered that small cubes of the gleaming black stuff had been used by the Elderlings to store songs and poetry.

  I myself had wakened the slumbering dragons of previous generations with an offering of blood and a call to arms that was both Wit-and Skill-wrapped into one magic.

  Blood on memory stone, and my touch. The Skill and the Wit both boiling inside me. The smear of blood sank into the stone.

  The Fool opened wide his mouth and screamed. I saw his lips stretch, his bared teeth and stiffened tongue. It was a screech of unremitting agony.

  No sound reached my ears. It was more intimate than that. Sourceless and enduring, the endless, hopeless, merciless agony of systematic torture engulfed me. It filled my entire body and burned my skin as if I were a glass brimming with black despair. It was too familiar, for it was not the keen pain of any one physical torment but the overwhelming drowning of the mind and soul in the knowledge that nothing could prevent this torment. My own memories rose up in a shrieking chorus. Once more I sprawled on the cold stone floor of Prince Regal’s dungeons, my battered body suffocating my tormented mind. I tore my awareness free of that memory, denying that bond. The Fool’s carved eyes stared at me blindly. For a moment our gazes met, and then all went dark and my eyes burned. My enervated hands fumbled the carving, nearly dropping it but instead hugging it to me as I collapsed to my knees. I held it to my chest, feeling a far-distant wolf lift his muzzle and snarl in fury. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I babbled blindly, as if it were the Fool himself I had injured. Sweat burst from every pore on my body, drenching me. Still clutching the carving to me, I sank onto my side. Slowly, vision came back to my open, tearing eyes. I stared into the dying fire, haunted by images of dull-red instruments soaking in the flames, smelling blood both old and new mixed with the acrid stench of terror. I remembered how to close my eyes. I felt the wolf come to stand over me, threatening to rend any who came near. Slowly, the echoes of the pain passed. I drew breath.

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  Blood had the power to waken memory stone, whether it was an Elderling-carved dragon or the bust the Fool had shaped. And in that brief linking, I knew that the girl was dead. I’d felt her terror at being hunted and cornered, her memory of past torments, and the agony of her death. By that, I knew her for Revel’s girlish messenger rather than the soldier-schooled woman I’d seen with the two men. They’d followed her, they’d hunted her through my home, and they’d killed her. I did not know why or what message they had foiled, but I would find them and I would find o
ut.

  I rolled to my belly, still holding the carving to my chest. My head swam. I got my knees under me, knelt, and managed to stand by holding on to the desk top. Staggering to my chair, I sat down. I set the carving on the desk before me and looked at it. It had not changed. Had I imagined that movement, the Fool’s soundless scream and staring eyes? Had I shared some distant experience of the Fool’s, or had the carving expressed the terror and pain the messenger had felt at her death?

  I started to lift the carving, to set it to my brow to view again the simple memories he had stored in it for me. But my hands shook and I set it back on the desk. Not now. If somehow I’d merged the girl’s pain into the stone, I did not want to know that now, or share that agony again. Right now I needed to hunt.

  I tugged my sleeves down over my hands, and restored the carving to its place on the mantel. Still a bit shaky, I explored my den, looking for other signs of their presence, but found nothing.

  Someone had come here, to my private den, forced the doors, and disturbed some very private possessions. There were few things that touched to the heart of me as that carving did, precious few things that tied me to a past when I had served my King with the two dearest friends I had ever known. That someone, a stranger, had dared to handle it and had profaned it with blood he had shed brought me to the edge of a killing fury, and when I considered that it might easily have been stolen, my vision went red for a moment.

  I shook my head angrily, forcing cold on myself. Think. How had they found this place? It was obvious. When Revel had been sent to find me, they had followed. But if finding me was the true objective, why hadn’t they attacked then? And how had I missed being aware of them? Were they Forged, as Web had first suspected, humans with every connection to humanity torn from them? I doubted it; they had moved as a group in the ballroom, with trepidation and self-control such as I had never seen in the Forged. Had they, then, had some way of masking their life signatures? I knew of no magic that could do that. When my wolf had been alive we had, with difficulty, learned to keep our communication private. But that was scarcely the same as being able to completely conceal myself from the awareness of other Witted.

 
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