Fools assassin, p.51
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       Fools Assassin, p.51
 

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

  I’ll expect you to try. But for now, please, don’t press me for it. Here is what I need to know. I’m looking for a son born to one of these three women. The babe was possibly illegitimate. I had considered well how to ask about it. Many a woman wed in haste to cover a child’s true fatherhood.

  Three women, eh. Well, who are they?

  One you probably know, the second possibly, and the third it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of.

  Oh, this gets better by the moment. Well, no promises, but ask away.

  You will recall Huntswoman Laurel who aided us in Dutiful’s difficulty with the Piebalds. Afterward, she was very helpful in our dealings with Old Blood.

  There was a bit of a silence. Did he block me from something? Then he replied heartily, Of course I remember Laurel!

  Do you know if she married? Had children?

  Again a tiny gap, as if he hesitated. I can certainly find out. The next one?

  Garetha. She was a gardener girl when I was growing up at Buckkeep. And was still employed in the gardens when I was living at Buckkeep as Lord Golden’s man.

  Never heard that name, but it will be easy enough to find someone who has, and will know what’s become of her. And the last one?

  He was like a squirrel gathering nuts, so eager for the next one that he was stuffing the facts into his mind without trying to digest them until he had every bit of information from me. He’d soon pick out the common thread, I knew. Well, it would be all the sweeter for him if he had to work for it. I hesitated over the third woman. Any offspring she had borne to the Fool would be a man grown by now. But I would consider all possibilities.

  Page 188

 

  Jofron. She lived in the Mountain Kingdom, and helped care for me when I was so badly injured. She’s a woodworker, a maker of fine cabinets and toys. I know she has a son, for I met her grandson, but I need to know who her son’s father was, and when he was born. I’d like a physical description of him.

  I recall Jofron. Chade did not conceal that he was startled by my request. Well, that’s a few years back and quite a distance from here, but it’s not impossible to make queries. I have people in Jhaampe.

  I’m sure you do. You have people everywhere, including here at Withywoods, I half-accused and half-complimented him.

  That might be so. And well you know how useful a well-spread net of quick eyes and sharp ears can be. So. Jofron, Garetha, and Huntswoman Laurel. And you are looking for a child. Boy or girl?

  A boy. But one who might be well past childhood by now. In the case of Jofron her son is at least thirty-six years old. I think. Could I be sure that the Fool had not visited her since then? Could I be sure of anything? Oh, any child, of any age, that any of them have borne. If you can get me that information, I will sort it myself and be in your debt.

  You certainly will be, he promised me, and severed our Skill-connection before I could tell or ask him anything more.

  I lingered in the Skill-stream, allowing myself to feel its allure. Youngsters training in the Skill are sternly warned against its addictive attraction. It’s a difficult sensation to describe. I felt complete in the Skill. Not lonely. Even in the midst of the deepest possible love, one feels apart from one’s partner—separated by skin even as we are joined in the act that makes two one. Only in the Skill does that sense of separation fade. Only in the Skill have I felt that sense of oneness with the whole world. Since Molly had died, I had felt more alone than I ever had. And so I tempted myself, letting that completeness wash against me, considering just letting go and becoming one with the greater whole. Not a part joining to other parts; no. In the Skill, all boundaries dissolve, all sense of self as an individual fades.

  On the surface of the Skill, one can float and hear threads of the lives of others. Many folk have a moderate amount of Skill-talent, not enough for them to employ it actively, but enough that they unwittingly reach out to the world. I heard a mother thinking of her son, gone to sea and unheard from for six months. She hoped he was well and her heart reached after him in a seeking she was not aware she did. A young man was facing his wedding day, but was thinking of a girl he had known when he was barely a man. He’d thought she might be the love of his life but they had parted and now he had another woman he cherished. Tomorrow they would wed. But even as he contemplated the joy the next day might bring, his thoughts reached out to that first lost love. I floated in the stream, privy to the longing of dozens who reached after love. There were many sending out questing thought. Some dreamed of love and wholeness, but there were others, dreaming of vengeance and wishing ill on others as they dwelt on wrongdoings and slights.

  No. I wanted nothing of that. I sank myself deeper into the stronger current where all such outreaching mingled into a vast joining. Sometimes I thought it the birthplace of dreams and intuitions. At other times I thought of it as a repository of all the folk who had gone before us, and perhaps even those to come after. It was a place where sorrows and joys were equal, where life and death were just the stitches on each side of a quilt. It was nepenthe.

  I drifted there, not quite allowing it to tatter me away into threads. I could not allow myself to let go, but I could think about letting go and how wonderful it would feel. There would be no loss, no tasks to do, no loneliness, no pain. Those I left behind would pay those tolls but I would be beyond them and beyond feeling remorse or regret for them. I thought of Molly, felt that pain, and then, chiding myself as I did so, let a thread of it unravel into the Skill. It drew it out of me like a good poultice sucks foulness from a wound. The pressure lessened and—

  Fitz.

  I could ignore that.

  Dream Wolf!

  That I could not ignore. Nettle, I responded. I felt ashamed to be caught in such a self-indulgent action. I was Skilling to Chade.

  You were not! You were leaking yourself away. I might expect that of a first-year Skill-student. Not you. What is the matter with you?

  She had summoned me with my daughter’s name for me, but this was not Nettle the Skill-dreamer but Nettle the Skillmistress. And she was angry with me.

  The matter with me is that I ache for your mother. I tried to project that as a reason rather than an excuse for bad behavior. I had drifted too far, indulged too much. Pulled up short, I suddenly recognized how close I had been to letting go. And how inexcusable that would have been. I’d have been abandoning Bee, condemning any who still cared for me to caretake a living corpse as I foundered in drool, waste, and idiocy until my body died.

  Page 189

 

  Me, Nettle insisted. She’d followed my thoughts unerringly. That task would have fallen on me. Well, I wouldn’t do it, nor allow anyone else to do it for you. I would have come to Withywoods, closed the estate, and taken Bee with me. I’d leave you drooling in a corner. Don’t ever think you can do that to my sister and me!

  I wouldn’t, Nettle. I wouldn’t! I was just … My thought faltered away from me.

  Standing on a box with a noose around your neck? Whetting a blade on your throat? Brewing up a nice thick cup of carryme tea?

  I don’t want to kill myself, Nettle. I don’t. I haven’t even thought about it. I just sometimes get so lonely … Sometimes, I just need it to stop hurting.

  Well, it doesn’t. Her reply was savagely angry. It doesn’t stop hurting. So live with it, because you are not the only one feeling that pain. And the last thing that Bee needs is to have it doubled.

  I wouldn’t do that! I was starting to be angry at her. How could she think that of me?

  It’s a bad example to set for the apprentices. And it’s not as if you are the only one who has ever been tempted to escape by that route.

  That stunned me. Cold rippled down my spine. You?

  She did something. I wasn’t sure what, but suddenly I was slammed back into my own body. I was sitting in my chair in front of a dying fire. I sat up with a start, and then leaned back,
my head spinning and my heart pounding, just as if she had flung me to the ground. I had the grace to be ashamed of myself. She was right. I had been teetering on the edge, looking over, daring myself to take the plunge. If I had weakened for one moment, it would have been irrevocable. And Bee would have taken the brunt of it.

  I shut my eyes and lowered my face into my hands.

  And another thing!

  Sweet Eda, she had grown powerful. Nettle barged into my mind as strongly as if she slammed the door open and stood before my chair. She gave me no time to respond.

  You need to pay more attention to Bee. Riddle says she is much alone, running about with little supervision, no chores or expectations, and that she looks neglected. Her clothing, her hair … He says that you seem to pay attention to her mind, but the rest of her is … Well. She can’t be allowed to run about like a stray cat. You need to take her in hand. Would you have her grow up both useless and ignorant? Unkempt and untaught? She need to be occupied, both her mind and her hands! He says that we have badly misjudged how intelligent she is, and that as a result she has not been educated as she should have been, from the time she was small. Bee is jealous of Shun and the attention she demands. Don’t give her cause for that. You’ve only the one child there, Fitz. Pay attention to her.

  I will, I promised, but she was gone. And I was left sitting in my chair, my head aching from the Skill as it had not in many a year. My uncle Verity had once said of my father that being Skilled by him was like being trampled by a horse. He was strong with it; he charged into his brother’s mind, dumped his information, and left. I now thought I understood what he had meant. My candles had burned down to stubs before I felt completely like myself. Nettle had planted a foreign thought in my mind. Bee was jealous? I spent that time pondering why on earth Bee would feel jealous of Shun. When I thought I had the answer, I resolved to call in Revel early the next day and remedy all.

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Perseverance

  Safely arrived at Withywoods with my charge. This Lady Shun is perhaps the most awkward task Lord Chade has ever assigned to me. Daily I am grateful that you are nothing like her. Bee is, as you warned me, a strange little girl. I do not see any signs that your father neglects her. In fact, they seem remarkably close and (blotted area). I will watch, as I have promised you, and answer true what I think is (obscured by blotch). I could write so much more to you, my dear, but there is small space for this pigeon to carry my words. And in truth, you would already know much of what I would say.

  Discarded pigeon message scroll

  Shun’s constant whining to have things changed to suit her kept both my father and Riddle busy for those days. My promised lessons in riding did not materialize. By the time I had returned from my walk that morning, Riddle had driven Lady Shun to town in the two-wheeled cart so that she might see what sorts of fabric were available in the market and buy new blankets. It was small comfort to me that the cart jolted and bumped on the icy ruts in the road, and that I knew she would be disappointed in what she found. She had succeeded in snatching Riddle away and having him to herself. I found I was jealous of that, not on my own behalf, but for my sister. I knew that in some way Riddle belonged to Nettle, and I did not like to see Shun making free with his time. If anyone recalled that I had been promised riding lessons, no one mentioned it. And when Riddle and Shun returned, they were dispatched almost immediately on a much grander journey to buy so many things that my father sent two wagons with them. No one thought to ask me if I might like to go along or if there was anything I might want bought at a market town.

  Page 190

 

  The following days had been filled with noise and disorder. A new wave of workmen had arrived at Withywoods. Heavy wagons drawn by immense horses came and went in the drive. Men unloaded timber and stone and carried them through the house. Rot had been discovered in a wall and what had begun as a simple repair would be anything but. Hammering and sawing and the tramping of workers and their shouted conversations to one another seemed to fill every corner of my home. I had promised my father that I would do my best to stay out of their way, and I had. I continued to sleep in my mother’s sitting room. My clothing chests were moved there and refilled with my laundered clothing. There seemed far less of it than there had been. Revel must have decided to burn some of it.

  I had also undertaken, on my own, to visit the stables. It was not an area I knew well. My small size had always meant that I had a proportionately greater dread of large animals. Even the shepherd’s dogs seemed large to me, and many of the horses I could have walked under without even dipping my head. Nonetheless, I not only made my way there, but located the mare that my father had so long ago chosen for me. She was, as my father had told me, a dapple-gray with one white hoof. I found a stool and dragged it to her stall, and climbed up and sat on her manger to look at her. There was no shyness in her; she came immediately to snuffle at my shoe, and then to lip at the edge of my tunic. I put out a hand to her, and she began to lick my palm. I sat still and allowed it, for it kept her head still and let me examine her face more thoroughly.

  But, “Here, miss, you oughtn’t to let her do that. She’s just after the salt on your skin, you know. And it may teach her to bite. ”

  “No, it won’t,” I asserted, even though I had no idea if it was true. The boy looking up at me was only a few years older than myself, I suspected, even if he was head and shoulders taller than I was. I rather enjoyed looking down on him. There were bits of straw in his black hair, and the coarse fabric of his shirt had been softened by many washings. His nose and cheeks were red from enduring the bite of wind and rain, and the hands that rested on the stall’s edge were work-roughened. He had a straight, strong nose, and his teeth looked too big for his mouth. His dark eyes had narrowed at my defiance.

  I drew my hand back from the mare’s tongue. “She’s my horse,” I said, trying to justify myself and then hated how the words sounded. The boy’s face grew bleaker.

  “Yah. I guessed as much. You’re Lady Bee, then. ”

  It was my turn to narrow my eyes. “I’m Bee,” I said. “That’s all. ”

  He looked at me guardedly for a moment. “I’m Per. I’m Dapple’s groom and exercise boy. ”

  “Dapple,” I said. I hadn’t even known the name of my own horse. Why did I feel ashamed?

  “Yah. Stupid name, isn’t it?”

  I nodded back at him. “It could be the name of any dappled horse. Who named her so badly?”

  He shrugged. “No one named her. ” He scratched his head, and a bit of the straw fell to his shoulder. He didn’t even notice it. “She came here with no name, and we just called her the dapple, and then it started being Dapple. ”

  That was probably my fault. I suspected my father had expected me to come here and get to know her and give her a name. I hadn’t. I’d been too afraid of how big horses were. I’d feared to imagine what one might do if he didn’t want me on his back.

  “Per’s an odd name, too. ”

  He gave me a sideways glance. “Perseverance, miss. It’s a bit too long to shout at me, so I’m Per. ” He looked at me and suddenly confided, “But someday I’m going to be Tallestman. My grandfather was called Tallman, and when my father grew taller than he was, all the hands started calling him Tallerman. And that’s how he’s known now. ” He pulled himself up straight. “I’m a bit short now, but I think I’m going to grow, and when I top my da, I’m going to be Tallestman. Not Perseverance. ” He shut his mouth firmly and thought about it for a minute. His disclosure was like a bridge he was waiting for me to cross. It was my turn to say something.

  “How long have you taken care of her?”

  “Two years now. ”

  I looked away from him to the mare. “What name would you give her?” I knew something. He had named her.

  “I’d call her Priss. Because she’s so fussy about some things. Hates to have her hooves dirty.
And her saddle has to be just so, the pad all smooth, not a rumple anywhere. She’s prissy about things like that. ”

  Page 191

  “Priss,” I said, and the gray ears flicked forward. She knew it meant her. “It’s a good name. Much better than Dapple. ”

  “It is,” he agreed easily. He scratched his head again and then frowned and finger-combed his hair, pulling straw from it. “You want me to ready her for you?”

  I don’t know how to ride a horse. I’m afraid of horses. I don’t even know how to get on a horse. “Yes, please,” I said, with no idea why I said it.

  I sat on the edge of her stall and watched as he worked. He moved quickly but methodically, and I thought that Priss knew everything he would do before he did it. When he set the saddle on her back, it wafted her scent to me. Horse, and the oiled leather, and old sweat. I set my muscles against the nervous shiver that ran down my back. I could do this. She was gentle. Look how she stood so still for the saddle and how she took the bit and bridle with no fuss.

  I clambered down from the top of the stall wall as he opened the door to lead her out. I looked up at her. So tall.

  “There’s a mounting block near the front of the stable. Here. Walk beside me, not behind her. ”

  “Does she kick?” I asked with rising dread.

  “She’ll be happier if she can see you,” he said, and I decided that might mean yes.

  Clambering up the mounting block was not easy for me, and even when I stood on it, her back seemed high. I looked up at the sky. “Looks like it’s going to rain. ”

  “Nah. Not until evening. ” His gaze met mine. “Want a boost?”

  I managed a stiff nod.

  He came up on the mounting block beside me. “I’ll lift you, and you get a leg over,” he directed me. He hesitated a moment, then put his hands on my waist. He lifted me, and I felt almost anger that it seemed so easy for him to do. But I swung my leg over the mare and he set me down on her. I caught my breath as she shifted under me. She turned her head to look back at me curiously.

  “She’s used to me,” Per excused her. “You’d be a lot lighter. She probably wonders if anyone’s really in the saddle. ”

 
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