Fools assassin, p.55
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       Fools Assassin, p.55

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

  “Then we will,” he said. He stood. I didn’t offer my hand and he didn’t try to take it. But I followed him out of the room that had once been mine, the room where the messenger had died.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Things to Keep

  It was in the time of Queen Dextrous that the head scribe at Buckkeep Castle was given the additional duty of instructing any “willing” child in the keep in the art of letters. It has been said that she decreed this because of her great dislike of Scribe Martin. Certainly many Buckkeep scribes who came after Martin seemed to think it more punishment than honor.

  On the Duties of Scribes, Scribe Fedwren

  And so, again, I had erred. And badly. I walked slowly down the corridor, my little child by my side. She did not take my hand. She walked just out of my arm’s reach, and I knew that was no accident. If pain can radiate as heat from a fire, then that was the cold that I felt from her stiff little form. I had been so sure that I was doing it right. That she would be delighted with her new room and furnishings that took her size into consideration. And in my eagerness to deceive the staff about the “guest” who had gone missing, I had destroyed precious mementos, irreplaceable pieces of her childhood.

  I took her to my bedchamber. It was a different place than it had been the last time she had been there. I’d gathered all my clothing and bedding and sent for the launderer. The man had made two trips with a very large basket, disapproval pinching his narrow nose nearly closed. That evening, when I returned to my room, my featherbed had been aired and turned, all surfaces dusted, and the room otherwise tidied. I hadn’t authorized it; I suspected Revel. That night I slept on linens washed clean of the sweat of grief, on pillows that had not been soaked with my tears. The tapers for my candleholders were plain white ones, unscented, and the nightshirt I donned was soft and clean against my skin. I had felt like a traveler who had been on a long and arduous journey, and arrived at a faceless inn.

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  I was not surprised when Bee halted just inside the door and stared in dismay. It could have been any man’s room. Or no one’s. She looked around the room and then back at me.

  “I want my things back. ” She spoke clearly. There was no trace of huskiness in her voice, no strain of tears held back. I took her to a storage chest under the window, unlocked it, and opened it. She looked in and grew very still.

  Inside were not only the items I had removed from her room on that cruel and frantic evening, but many another memento as well. I had the first garment Bee had ever worn, and a ribbon stolen many years ago from Molly’s hair. I had her mother’s brush and her looking glass, and her favorite belt, leather dyed blue with pouches laced to it. Burrich had made it for her, and the buckle was worn thin with use. She had worn it until the day she died. There was a small casket that held not only her mother’s jewelry, but each of Bee’s baby teeth.

  Bee found her books, and her nightgowns. “The candles are in my study, kept only for you,” I reminded her. She found and gathered several small figurines. She did not speak, but by her folded lips I knew there were other significant items missing.

  “I’m sorry,” I said, when she turned from the trunk with her arms full of her precious items. “I should have asked you. If I could bring back your cherished things, I would. ”

  She turned, and fleetingly her eyes met mine. Anger and pain smoldered in a banked fire there. Abruptly, she set her armful down on my bed. “I want my mother’s belt-knife,” she announced.

  I looked down into the chest. The little knife rode on the belt, where it had for years. It had a bone handle, and at some time Molly or perhaps Burrich had wrapped it with a strip of leather to keep it from slipping. It had a blue sheath to match the leather belt. “The belt will be too big for you for many years,” I said. It was an observation, not an objection. I had never thought of it going to anyone except Bee.

  “I just need the knife and sheath now,” she said. She met my eyes again with that sliding glance. “To protect myself. ”

  I drew a deep breath and took Molly’s belt from the chest. I had to take several little pouches off the belt before I could slide the sheathed knife free. I held it out toward Bee, haft-first, but as she reached for it I drew it back. “Protect yourself from what?” I demanded.

  “Assassins. ” She asserted it quietly. “And people who hate me. ”

  Those words hit me like stones. “No one hates you!” I exclaimed.

  “They do. Those children that you have decided will take lessons beside me. At least three of them hate me. Maybe more. ”

  I sat down on the edge of the bed, Molly’s knife loose in my hands. “Bee,” I said rationally. “They scarcely know you, so how could they hate you? And even if they dislike you, I doubt that the children of the keep would dare to—”

  “They threw stones at me. And chased me. He slapped me so hard my mouth bled. ”

  A terrible cold anger welled in me. “Who did this? When?”

  She looked away from me. She stared at the corner of the room. I think she fought tears. She spoke very quietly. “It was years ago. And I’m not going to say. Your knowing would only make it worse. ”

  “I doubt that,” I said harshly. “Tell me who chased you, who dared to stone you, and they will be gone from Withywoods this very night. They and their parents with them. ”

  Her blue glance slid past me as a swallow skims past a cliff. “Oh, and that would make the other servants love me well, wouldn’t it? A nice life I should have then, with the other children fearful of me and their parents hating me. ”

  She was right. It made sickness well up in me. My little girl had been chased and stoned and I had not even known. Even knowing, I could not think of a way to protect her. She was right. Anything I did would only make it worse. I found myself handing her the sheathed knife. She took it from me and for a moment I think she was disappointed I had yielded to her. Did she know that I was admitting there were times when I could not protect her? As Bee tugged the short knife free of its sheath, I wondered what Molly would have said to me, or what she would have done. It was a simple blade, showing the wear of much honing. Molly had used it for everything: cutting tough stems on flowers, shaving a wormhole from a carrot, or digging a splinter from my thumb. I glanced at my hand, remembering how she had held it tight and mercilessly dug out the ragged shard of cedar.

  Bee had reversed her grip on the knife, holding it as if she was going to stab downward with it. She made several passes at the air, teeth clenched.

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  “Not like that,” I heard myself say. She scowled at me from under lowered brows. I started to take the knife from her hand, and then realized that would not do. I drew my own belt-knife. It looked like Molly’s, a short, sturdy blade meant for the dozen odd chores that might demand a knife during the day. I held it loosely in my hand, palm-up, the haft resting lightly. I balanced it. “Try this. ”

  Grudgingly, she reversed her grip on the blade. She balanced it in her hand, and then gripped it tight. She poked the air with it, then shook her head. “I’m stronger with it the other way. ”

  “Perhaps. If you have an obliging enemy who will stand still while you stab him. But you’ll have to get close to him. If I hold a knife like this, it lets me force someone to stay back from me. Or I can reach out and cut someone before he can get close to me. Or I may choose to do a wide slash. ” I demonstrated that for her. “The way you were holding your blade, you can’t slash effectively. Nor hold off more than one attacker. ”

  I could see in her bunched shoulders how much she wanted to be right. It irritated her that she had to recognize she was wrong. In a small, gruff voice she conceded with, “Show me. ” And even more grudgingly. “Please. ”

  “Very well. ” I stepped well clear of her and took up a stance. “It starts with your feet. You need to be balanced and ready, your weight set so that you can s
way aside, or take a sudden step forward or back without losing your balance. Knees a little bent. See how I can move my body from side to side?”

  She took a stance opposite me and copied me. She was limber, my little girl, and slender as a snake.

  I set my knife down and armed myself with the sheath. “Now here’s our first game. Neither one of us is allowed to move our feet. Or step forward or step back. I’m going to try to touch you with the tip of this sheath. You have to move aside and not let it touch you. ”

  She looked at the bared blade in her hand and then at me.

  “For now, set that aside. Begin by avoiding my blade. ”

  And so I danced with my daughter, swaying counterpoints to each other. At first I touched her effortlessly, tapping her upper arm, her breastbone, her belly, her shoulder. “Don’t watch the knife,” I suggested. “Watch all of me. By the time the knife is moving toward you, it’s almost too late. Watch my whole body, and see if you can tell when I’m going to try to tap you, and where. ”

  I was not as rough with her as Chade had been with me. Chade’s jabs had left little bruises, and he had laughed at me every time he scored a hit. I was not Chade and she was not me. Bruising her or mocking her would not wring greater effort from her. As I recalled, it had provoked me to anger, and led to errors and swifter defeat. I was not, I reminded myself, trying to teach my daughter to be an assassin. I merely wanted to teach her how to avoid a knife.

  She improved rapidly, and soon I was the one being poked at with a sheath. The first time I allowed her to hit me, she stopped and then stood very still. “If you don’t want to teach me, then say so,” she said coldly. “But don’t pretend I’ve learned something I haven’t. ”

  “I just didn’t want you to get discouraged,” I said to excuse my subterfuge.

  “And I just don’t want to think I’ve learned something I haven’t. If someone wants to kill me, I need to be able to kill him back. ”

  I stood still and fought to keep a smile from forming in my face or eyes. She would not have taken it well. “Very well, then,” I said, and after that I was honest with her. It meant that she did not touch me again that afternoon, but it also meant that my back ached and I was sweating before she conceded that she’d had enough instruction for one day. Her short hair was damp and stood up in spikes as she sat down on the floor to thread the knife’s sheath onto her belt. When she stood up, the knife hung heavy on her child’s body. I looked at her. She didn’t lift her eyes to mine. She suddenly looked to me like a neglected puppy. Molly had never let her run about in such disarray.

  I felt as if I were tearing a piece from my heart as I lifted Molly’s silver-backed brush and horn comb from my trove. I set it with her other treasures. I had to clear my throat before I spoke. “Let’s take these to your new room. Then I want you to use your mother’s brush to smooth your hair. It’s still too short to tie back. But you can put on one of your new tunics. ” Her fuzzy head nodded. “I think we will keep the knife lessons private, shall we?”

  “I wish you had kept all my lessons private,” she muttered sullenly.

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  “Do we need to talk about that?”

  “You do things without asking me,” she complained.

  I crossed my arms on my chest and looked down on her. “I’m your father,” I reminded her. “I don’t ask your permission to do what I think is right. ”

  “It’s not about that! It’s about not knowing before it happens. It’s about …” She faltered. Then she looked up at me and fought to keep her gaze on mine as she told me earnestly, “They will try to hurt me. ”

  “I am sure your tutor will keep order among his students. ”

  She shook her head wildly and made a noise like a cornered cat. “They don’t have to hit me to hurt me. Girls can …” Her clenched fists suddenly opened wide into claws. She clasped her own little head in taloned hands and squinched her eyes tight. “Forget that I asked you. I will take care of this myself. ”

  “Bee,” I began warningly, but she interrupted me with, “I told you. Girls don’t have to hit to hurt. ”

  I did not let it go. “I want you to understand why I invited the other children to be taught as well. ”

  “I do understand. ”

  “Then tell me why. ”

  “To show everyone that you are not a stingy man. Or hardhearted. ”

  “What?”

  “Perse—the stable boy. He told me that some people say you have a dark look to you, and that after Mother died they feared you would become harsh with the servants. You didn’t. But this will show that you are actually a good man. ”

  “Bee. It’s not about me showing anybody anything. In Buckkeep Castle any child that wishes to learn is allowed to come to lessons at the Great Hearth. I, a bastard, was allowed to come there and learn. And so I think that, in my turn, I will allow any child who wishes to learn the chance. ”

  She wasn’t looking at me. I took a deep breath and nearly added more words, but then sighed instead. If she didn’t understand what I had told her, more words would only weary her. She looked aside from me when I sighed.

  “It’s the right thing to do. ”

  When I didn’t respond, she added, “My mother would have wanted to learn. And if she were here, I know she would have insisted that every child receive the chance. You are right. ” She began to gather up her trove. It quickly filled her arms. She didn’t ask for help but just tucked her chin over it to hold it to her chest. In a very quiet voice she added, “But I wish you weren’t right, and I did not have to learn alongside them. ” I opened the door for her and followed her out.

  We had almost reached the door of her room when I heard the tapping of hard-soled slippers and looked back to see Shun bearing down on me like a ship under full sail. “Holder Badgerlock!” she hailed me imperiously. Bee’s pace increased. I halted and turned to face Shun, giving my daughter an opportunity to flee.

  “Good afternoon, Lady Shun,” I greeted her, assuming a smile I did not feel.

  “I need to speak to you,” she called breathlessly, steps before she had reached a conversational distance. When she halted, she began without greeting or preambles, “So, when are my music lessons to begin? And my dance instructor should come from Buckkeep Castle itself, if not from Jamaillia. I wanted to be sure you realized that. I don’t wish to be hampered by knowing only the old steps. ”

  I kept my smile with difficulty. “Music lessons. I am not sure that Scribe FitzVigilant is prepared to teach—”

  She shook her head impatiently, her auburn curls flying. The motion propelled her scent to me. Molly had always worn perfumes of flowers and herbs: ginger and cinnamon, rose and lily. The fragrance that reached me from Shun had no recollection of a garden. A headache almost immediately assaulted me. I stepped back and she stepped forward as she continued. “I’ve already spoken to him, three days ago. He agrees with you that he is not qualified to teach me to play an instrument or sing, but suggested that if the manor hosted some minstrels for the winter, they were often pleased to instruct young ladies in musical accomplishments for a modest stipend.

  “So then I asked him about dancing and—”

  “Scribe FitzVigilant is still recovering. When did you speak to him?”

  “When I went to his rooms to wish him well, of course. The poor fellow, I thought, sent away from Buckkeep Castle and the pleasures of the court to this backwater! I was sure he must be lonely and bored in his convalescence so I called on him, and engaged him in conversation to cheer him. I fear he is not a skilled conversationalist, but I well know how to pose questions and draw a shy fellow out of his shell. So when I asked him if he could dance and he told me he did, well enough, I asked if he might teach me some of the newer steps and he said he feared that his health would prevent him from dancing gracefully for a time. That was when he suggested I might need an instructor. So of course, I told Riddle
, and … he didn’t speak to you, did he? For a serving man, he is most forgetful! To the point of uselessness. It’s a wonder to me that you keep him on at all!”

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  I was casting my mind back over recent conversations with Riddle, trying to scavenge a clue to what she was talking about. I was distracted to think she had bothered poor FitzVigilant with her chatter. “Riddle is actually Lady Nettle’s man, only loaned to Lord Chade for your safekeeping. And to look in on young Lady Bee, her sister. ”

  “Her ‘sister. ’” Shun smiled. She cocked her head at me and regarded me with a trace of sympathy. “I respect you, Holder Badgerlock. Truly, I do. Living in your stepdaughter’s home, maintaining it so diligently. And offering haven to the bastards of Buckkeep. FitzVigilant and myself and Bee. Tell me. What lord fathered her that she must hide here with you? I’m thinking her father was from Farrow. I’ve heard that wheat hair and cornflower eyes are more common there. ”

  Such a surge of emotions. If I had not possessed the benefit of Chade’s years of training, I think that for the first time in my life I would have struck an unarmed woman. I stared at her, masking everything I felt from her empty smile. Or was it? Was she seeking to hurt me? Truly, Bee was right. A girl did not need to hit to hurt someone. I could not tell if the blow she had dealt me was intended or not. She had her head cocked, smiling at me confidentially, as if begging for a stray bit of gossip. I spoke slowly and softly. “Bee is my true daughter, the child my loving wife bore to me. No taint of bastardy touches her. ”

  Her gaze changed, her sympathy apparently deepening. “Oh, dear. I beg your pardon. I thought that surely, as she does not resemble you at all … but of course, I am sure you know what is true in that regard. So there are only three bastards seeking sanctuary at Withywoods. Myself and FitzVigilant, and, of course, you. ”

  I matched her tone perfectly. “Of course. ”

  I heard a soft tread and looked past her to see Riddle approaching. His movements slowed as if he had seen a crouching lynx or a snake poised to strike. Uncertainty turned to dismay as he accepted that he might have to attempt to protect Shun from me. When had the man come to know me so well? I stepped back from her, putting myself beyond striking distance, and saw his shoulders relax, then tighten again as Shun shadowed my movement, putting herself back in harm’s way. His eyes met mine for a moment and then he strode lightly up to join us. When he touched Shun on the shoulder, she jumped. She had been completely unaware of his approach.

 
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