Fools assassin, p.58
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       Fools Assassin, p.58

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

  Perhaps she intended such things to express outrage she supposed I shared. In reality they only made me feel shabby and shy. I could find no words to defend myself or my clothing. I put on my belt with my mother’s knife, for courage. Careful gave a disapproving snort, and knelt before me. “That’s not how you wear that,” she told me. I kept my silence as she took my belt and hastily bored a new hole in it with her own little knife, and then put it on me so that it rode at my waist instead of sitting on my hips.

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  When she had finished tugging at my hair and pulling my tunic straight, she stood me before my mirror and we looked at the reflection. To my surprise, I did not look nearly as poorly turned out as I had feared. I smiled at my reflection and said, “I think this is the nicest I have looked in months. Thank you, Mistress Careful. ”

  I think my words shocked her. She had been crouching beside me. Now she rocked back on her heels and stared at me, her large brown eyes gone very wide indeed. “You wait here,” she told me abruptly. “You wait right here. ”

  I obeyed her, and before I even had time to wonder why I was doing what a servant told me to do, she was back. “Now, I shall want these back when you are finished with them. They cost me a pretty penny, and I’ve worn them less than a dozen times. So keep your wrists well away from anything sticky. Do you think you can do that?”

  She hadn’t waited for an answer or permission. She fitted cuffs of cream lace to the wrists of my underblouse, and then added a collar that matched. They were a bit large, but she took a threaded needle from beneath the collar of her shirt and quickly took them in. She stared at me when she was finished, her brow creased. Then she gave a small sigh. “Well. I wish the daughter of the household, placed in my care, were better turned out than the kitchen girls, but this will do for today, and before the hour is out I will be letting Revel know what I think! Off you go to breakfast now, poppet. Doubtless I shall have an hour of tidying to do in Lady Shun’s room. Every morning it’s the same, a dozen skirts flung about the room, and as many pretty blouses. You, now, you keep your things neat as a pin. I don’t think I’ve ever needed more than ten breaths to tidy your room. ”

  I kept to myself that I had not even known she was supposed to tidy my room. I had accepted without question that someone took care of my washbasin, ewer, and chamber pot, just as I accepted that my bed linens were laundered once a month. “My thanks for the care you take of me,” I said, as it came to me that those were not particularly pleasant tasks.

  Again, her cheeks pinked. “I’m sure you’re welcome, Lady Bee. And off you go now! I hope your lessons go well. ”

  Anticipation warred with dread. I wanted to go directly to the schoolroom. I wanted to run and hide in my special place. Instead I went down to breakfast. My father was there, waiting for me. He was not seated, but wandering about the room, as if he, too, were nervous. He turned to me when I came in and his eyes widened. Then he smiled. “Well. You certainly look ready to begin your new studies!”

  “Careful helped me,” I told him. I touched the lace at my neck. “The collar and cuffs are hers. She was surprised I had no earrings. And then she said she would not let the kitchen girls outshine me. ”

  “They could not possibly do so, even if you were in rags and dirt. ”

  I just looked at him.

  “Not to say that you look ragged or dirty! No. No! I simply meant that no matter …” He stopped, and looked so comically woeful that I had to laugh.

  “It is fine, Da. It is not as if they do not see me every day, dressed as I ordinarily am. I will fool no one. ”

  My father looked mildly alarmed. “I do not think our aim is to trick anyone, Bee. Rather, you dress in a way that conveys respect to the scribe who teaches you. ” His speech slowed as he added, “And to convey your proper status in the household. ” He halted and I could see he was frantically considering something. I let him, for my mind was suddenly just as occupied.

  A dreadful thought had come to me. Lessons were to be something I did four of every hand of days. Did that mean that I would be dressed like this every day? Did it mean that every morning Careful would invade my rooms to prepare me? Slowly I understood that it would be a full four days before I could next do as I wished with my morning. No more riding in the morning. Not that there had been any since I’d had my falling-out with Perseverance. But I thought that eventually, somehow, I would mend things with him. My mornings being taken out of my control, though, was a permanent change. Almost daily, I’d be forced to deal with people I disliked in the schoolroom. And even at the breakfast table …

  “Well, Bee, such a surprise! You’ve combed your hair. You look almost like a girl this morning. ”

  I turned at Shun’s greeting. Riddle had followed her into the room. She was smiling at me. My father looked uncertain, while Riddle’s eyebrows had risen nearly to his hairline. I smiled back at her and carefully curtsied. “Why, thank you, Shun. You yourself look almost like a well-bred lady this day. ” I kept my voice as smooth as sweet cream. It would have been almost comical to watch my father’s expression switch from uncertainty to alarm, had it not been that Scribe FitzVigilant had entered just in time to hear my words. And only my words, not the comment that had provoked them. He gave me a look that a nasty and disrespectful child would merit, then greeted Shun warmly and escorted her to her chair at table as if he were rescuing her from a small, ill-tempered animal.

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  As I took my place at the table, I noticed that Shun did not immediately begin eating, but waited until FitzVigilant had taken his seat beside her. They were most companionable diners, greeting my father and Riddle, but sparing neither word nor glance for me. They passed food to each other, and Shun poured him more tea. For the most part I kept my eyes on my plate and ate. Whenever I did steal a glance at them, the matched beauty they presented clawed at my heart with jealous nails. Truly, they looked as if they had been struck from the same mold, created to be matches. They both possessed the same glossy curls, decided chins, and fine noses. Their gazes admired each other as if they were staring into a vanity mirror. I put my gaze back on my plate and pretended a great interest in my sausage.

  My father was offering Riddle a side of good bacon, wines from the cellar, and smoked river fish to take back to Buckkeep Castle with him. If Riddle had said yes to all of it, he could have loaded a wagon and borrowed a team. But he was insisting that he had to travel light, and that he would try to call again soon.

  Then my ears caught a fragment of Shun’s words. “… pretend it doesn’t bother me. But I am so glad that you are well enough to teach. A day filled with useful pursuits is, I believe, best for children. And discipline. Will you have a strict hand, do you think?”

  FitzVigilant’s voice was low and soft, like a big cat’s rumble. “Very strict to begin with, I think. Better to start with a firm hand, I think, than to try to establish one later. ”

  My heart sank.

  We finished our breakfast, and our scribe bid my father have a good morning. When he looked at me, he did not smile. “I expect to see you promptly in the schoolroom, Lady Bee. ”

  Courtesy might change his opinion of me. “I shall follow you there, Scribe FitzVigilant. ”

  He looked at my father rather than me as he said, “I suggest that my students call me Scribe Lant. It is less of a mouthful for young folk to remember. ”

  “As you wish,” my father replied, but I know he shared my thought. The name did not brand him as a bastard each time it was spoken.

  I waited quietly as my teacher bid Riddle good day, then followed him silently as he led the way to the schoolroom. He still had a slight limp, but he strove to strike a brisk pace. I followed him as quickly as I could without breaking into a trot. He said nothing to me as we hastened to the schoolroom, nor did he look back to see if I kept up with him. Foolish as it might seem, my heart was breaking while my d
islike for Shun was simmering to a boil. I would put dead rats in her wardrobe. No. That would only lead to trouble for Revel, and he had been kind to me. I tried in vain to think of any nasty trick I could do that would not create trouble for anyone else. It was so unfair that, simply because she was beautiful and a woman grown, she could command the full attention of any man in the household. They were my father, my sister’s companion, and the tutor sent to teach me, but with a toss of her head, it seemed that Shun could make them hers. And I was powerless to stop her.

  I had fallen well behind his long-strided haste. He reached the door of the schoolroom and halted, looking back at me in mild annoyance. He was silent as he waited for me, and stood back to allow me to trot into the room ahead of him.

  I halted inside the door in astonishment. I had never seen so many children gathered in one place, and they all stood as I entered. It seemed strange and threatening, as when a tree fills up with cawing crows or bees swarm before leaving the hive. I stood still with no idea of where to go. My gaze roved over them. Some I knew from past encounters, some I had glimpsed in passing, and two were complete strangers. Elm and Lea were there, neat and tidy, dressed in the green and yellow of Withywoods, their kitchen aprons set aside for now. Taffy was there, in a simple jerkin and trousers. He glowered, his arms crossed on his chest, obviously not pleased at being there. I found Perseverance in the back, his face so scrubbed it looked raw and his hair bound back in a tail. His clothing was tidy, but had plainly seen more than one owner. The lads near him would be the boys from the stables, Lukor and Ready and Oatil. There was a lad I’d seen working in the gardens, and two, a boy and a girl, that I’d seen tending geese. So many! At least a dozen faces stared at me as I stood frozen.

  A disapproving voice spoke behind me. “Lady Bee, if you would please move out of the doorway so I may enter?”

  I tottered a few steps out of his way and abruptly realized the children had risen for the scribe, not me. It made me feel a bit better as I edged into the room and their gazes shifted from me to FitzVigilant.

  “I am pleased to see such promptness,” he greeted them. I thought I detected a note of dismay in his voice. Was he as astonished as I was at how many children had assembled? He took a short breath. “You will address me as Scribe Lant. I am here to teach you. Lady Nettle has been extremely generous in sending a tutor to instruct the children of her estate. I want all of you to be aware of how rare such generosity is. I hope you will show yourself properly grateful by exhibiting excellent behavior and applying yourselves diligently to your studies. We will begin immediately. Let each of you find a place and be seated. I think my first task will be to determine how much you already know. ”

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  A bench provided seats for four of them. Elm and Lea quickly claimed two of those spots, and the goose girl and boy took the others. Taffy and another big boy and Perseverance sat down on the hearth, backs to the fire. The others glanced about and then sank to the floor to sit cross-legged. After a moment of indecision, I sat down at the edge of the group, on the carpet with them. The garden boy glanced at me, smiled shyly, and then looked away. Two of the others shifted away from me. They both smelled slightly of sheep. Scribe FitzVigilant had moved to a worktable and he took a seat there. “I shall have to send for more tablets,” he said, half to himself and half to us. “And ask Revel to bring in seating. ”

  Then he pointed to the children seated on the bench. “I’ll start with you. Please come up, one at a time, and tell me what learning you already have. ” His gaze swept the room. “I am sure the rest of you can wait quietly while I do this. ”

  The children exchanged glances. He had not chosen to speak to me first. I wondered if they thought he already knew all about me or if, as I did, they knew it indicated he already disapproved of me. I had noted to myself that he ascribed the generosity to Lady Nettle, rather than my father, and that he spoke of coming to teach the children of the estate. No mention that I was sharing my tutor with them. No. He had grouped me with all the other students. As had I, I suddenly realized, when I had taken a seat on the floor with the others. An error. How could I correct it? Did I want to correct it?

  Some of the children settled immediately into more comfortable positions. This was going to take some time. Taffy sat scowling. He took out his belt-knife and began to pare and dig at his nails. The gardener’s children were looking about in wonder. Perseverance sat as attentively as a dog at a table’s edge.

  Scribe Lant called Elm up first. I folded my hands in my lap, stared at the floor, and eavesdropped with all my might. She could count, of course, and do simple sums as long as they did not go far past the fingers on her hands. She did not have any letters or reading or writing, except her name. She could name all the duchies in Buck, and knew that Chalced was dangerous to us. She was hazy on the rest of geography. Well, I knew more than that, but not so much that I felt sure of myself.

  Lea had about the same level of learning as Elm, except that she could recognize the names of some spices from having to fetch the containers from the shelves. The goose girl was named Ivy. She had no reading or writing, but she and her brother played games with arithmetic to pass the time. Her brother was Spruce, and he stood as tall as his name. He, too, did not know letters but was obviously excited at the chance to learn them. He was as quick at figures as his sister, with our scribe setting him problems such as “Twelve geese were on the water, and seventeen more landed while five flew away. Then twenty-two goslings came out of the reeds. A bullfrog ate one. How many geese and goslings remain?” Spruce answered the question quickly but added, a bit pink about the cheeks, that not all numbers needed to be about geese. FitzVigilant praised his quick mind and his eagerness to learn and called Perseverance to him.

  Perseverance stood, head bowed, and answered respectfully that he had no letters or reading. He could reckon “well enough to get my work done. ” He volunteered that it was his father’s wish he learn more, and added that he respected his father’s will in knowing what was best for him. “As do I,” the scribe agreed. He set the stable boy some simple arithmetic problems, and I saw Perseverance’s fingers move as he worked them to an answer. The tops of his cheeks and his ears were redder than when the wind kissed them, and once, when he stumbled, he glanced my way. I pretended to be straightening the hem of my tunic.

  It was much the same with the other students. I noted that most seemed to have inherited whatever level of schooling their parents had. Oatil, also from the stables, sometimes helped bring in the supplies and tally them. He could read a little, and his mother wanted him to learn more reading and writing as well so that he could help her more with her tasks. The gardener’s boy, to my surprise, could write his name and read simple words, but had little skill with numbers. “But I’d be willing to learn,” he offered, and “Learn you shall then,” our tutor replied with a smile.

  When Taffy was called to the scribe’s table, he rose lazily and slouched over. The half-smile on his face did not escape FitzVigilant’s attention. He glanced up at him, said, “Stand up straight, please. Your name?” He poised his pen over his paper.

  “Taffy. My da works in the vineyards. My ma comes round to help with the lambing, sometimes, when she’s not dropping a kid herself. ” He glanced round at the rest of us, smirking, and added, “Da says she’s happiest with a big belly or one on the tit. ”

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  “Indeed?” Our tutor was unruffled. As Taffy had spoken for all to hear, he asked aloud, “Can you read or write, young man?”

  “Nar. ”

  “I’ll assume you meant to say, ‘No, Scribe Lant. ’ I’m sure you’ll do better the next time I ask you a question. Can you reckon? On paper, or in your head?”

  Taffy gave his bottom lip a swipe with his tongue. “I reckon that I don’t want to be here. ”

  “Yet here you are. And as your father wishes it, I will teach you. Return
to your place. ”

  Taffy sauntered away. It was my turn. I was last. I rose and went to stand before the scribe’s table. He was still making notes about Taffy. His dark curls were formed in perfect spirals. I looked down at his handwriting. It was clean and strong, even upside-down. “Insolent and unwilling,” he had noted next to Taffy’s name.

  He glanced up at me, and I snatched my gaze away from the paper to meet his. His eyes were a soft brown, with very long lashes. I looked hastily down again. “Well, Lady Bee, it is your turn now. ” He spoke softly. “It is Lady Nettle’s earnest wish that you learn to read and write, at least a little. Or as much as you are able. Do you think you could try to do that, for her?” His smile tried to be kind, but it was a false kindness.

  It shocked and hurt me that he spoke to me so condescendingly. It was much worse than when he had looked at me earlier with such disdain for my poor manners. I glanced up at him and then away. I did not speak loudly but I took care to form my every word as clearly as I could. I knew that sometimes my speech was still garbled and muted. I would take care that would not happen today. “I can already read and write, sir. And I can work with numbers up to twenty in my head. Beyond that, if I have tally sticks, I can get the correct answer. Most of the time. But not swiftly. I am familiar with the local geography, and can place each duchy on the map. I know ‘The Twelve Healing Herbs’ and other learning rhymes. ” That last was a gift from my mother. I had noticed that none of the children had spoken of learning rhymes or sayings.

  Scribe Lant gave me a guarded look as if he suspected me of something. “Learning rhymes. ”

  I cleared my throat. “Yes, sir. For instance, for catmint, the rhyme begins, ‘If you set it, the cat will get it. If you sow it, the cat won’t know it. ’ So the first thing to know of that herb is that if you try to start it with tiny plants in your garden, the cat will eat them. But if you plant the seeds, it will come up and the cat will not notice it so much, and the plants will be able to thrive. ”

 
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