Fools assassin, p.59
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       Fools Assassin, p.59

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

  He cleared his throat. “It’s a clever little rhyme, but not something that we could count as learning here. ”

  Someone giggled. I felt blood creeping up into my face. I hated my fair skin that showed my humiliation so plainly. I wished I had not chosen the simplest of my mother’s rhymes to share. “I know others, sir, which are more useful, perhaps. ”

  He gave a tiny sigh and closed his eyes for a moment. “I am sure you do, Lady Bee,” he said, as if he did not wish to injure my feelings over how ignorant I was. “But I am more interested in seeing your writing now. Can you make some letters for me on this?” He pushed a piece of paper toward me and offered me a bit of chalk. Did he think I did not know what a pen was?

  My humiliation boiled over in anger. I reached over his hand to take up his fine pen. In careful strokes, I inscribed, “My name is Bee Badgerlock. I live on Withywoods Estate. My sister is Lady Nettle, Skillmistress to His Majesty King Dutiful of the Six Duchies. “I lifted the pen, regarded my writing critically, and then turned the paper back toward him for him to read.

  He had watched me write with ill-concealed surprise. Now he regarded the paper in disbelief for a moment. Then he returned it to me. “Write this. ‘Today I begin lessons with Scribe Lant. ’”

  I did so, more slowly, for I found I was not certain how to spell “Lant. ” Again I turned it back to him. He next shoved at me a black wax tablet on which he had been scribing words. I had never seen such a device before, and I ran my finger lightly over the heavy coating of wax on the wood plank. He had written with a stylus, carving the words into the wax swiftly and gracefully.

  “Well. Can you read it or not?” His words were a challenge. “Aloud, please,” he added.

  I stared at the words. I spoke them slowly. “It is a wicked deceit to pretend to ignorance and inability. ” I looked back up at him, confused.

  “Do you agree?”

  I looked at the words again. “I don’t know,” I said, wondering what he intended by the words.

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  “Well. I know that I would agree. Lady Bee, you should be ashamed of yourself. Lady Nettle has been full of concern for you, believing you were both simple and near-mute. She has agonized over how you would fare in this world, over who would care for you as you grew older. And now I arrive here, thinking that my task would be to give you basic instruction in the simplest things, and I find you fully capable of reading and writing. And of being quite saucy to a lady who deserves your respect. So, Lady Bee, what am I to think?”

  I had found a small knot in the wooden table. I stared at the dark whorl of the wood grain and wanted to vanish. It was all too complicated to explain it to him. All I had wanted was not to appear strange to others. Small chance of that. I was too small for my age and too intelligent for my years. The first should have been obvious; saying the second aloud would make me appear to be as conceited as he believed me rude. I felt the heat come in my face. Someone spoke behind me.

  “Yah, she pretends to be a half-wit so she can spy on people. She used to follow me all the time, and then she got me in trouble. Everyone knows that about her. She likes to make trouble. ”

  And now the blood left my face and I felt dizzy with its absence. I could hardly get my breath. I turned to stare at Taffy. “That’s not true,” I tried to shout. It came out as a jagged whisper. He wore a jeering smile. Elm and Lea were nodding confirmation, their eyes glittering. The goose children looked on, eyes wide with wonder. Perseverance’s gaze slid past me and focused on the gray sky framed in the window. The other children just stared at me. I had no allies there. Before I could turn around and look at FitzVigilant, he ordered me tersely, “Sit down. I know where to begin your lessons now. ” He continued speaking as I returned to my spot on the floor. My neighbors slid away from me, as if the tutor’s disapproval was contagious. He went on speaking. “I’m afraid I did not expect so many students and so diverse a level of learning, so I did not bring enough supplies. I do have six wax tablets and six styli for writing on them. These we will have to share. Paper I have, and I am sure we can find a supply of good goose quills for pens. ” Here the goose children smiled and wiggled happily.

  “But we shall not use pens and ink and paper until we merit them. I have written the letters out large and clear on papers, and each of you shall have one of them to take with you. Every night I wish you to trace the letters with your fingers. Today we will practice the shapes of all the letters, and the sounds of the first five. ” He glanced at the gardener’s boy and added, “As you are already quite capable, Larkspur, I shall not bore you with these exercises. Instead there are several excellent scrolls and books here that have to do with gardening and plants. Perhaps you would like to study them while I work with the others. ”

  Larkspur glowed with his praise and quickly rose to accept a scroll on roses. It was one I’d read several times, and I recognized that it had come from one of Patience’s libraries. I pinched my lips shut. Perhaps my father had told him he could make free with the books of Withywoods. When he handed me the letter sheet, I did not protest that I, too, already knew my letters. I knew this was a punishment. I would be made to do tedious, useless exercises to demonstrate his disdain for my supposed “deceitfulness. ”

  He walked among us as first he named each letter aloud, and then we repeated it and traced it with a finger. When we had traced all thirty-three of them, he took us back to the first five, and asked who could remember their names. When I did not volunteer, he asked me if I was still pretending to be ignorant. That had not been my intent; I had resolved to accept my punishment in silence. I did not say so, but only looked at my knees. He made a sound in the back of his throat, a noise of impatience and disgust with me. I did not look up. He pointed at Spruce, who remembered two of them. Lea knew one. One of the sheep children knew another one. When the scribe pointed at Taffy, he stared at the page, scowled, and then announced, “Pee!” with earnest mockery. Our teacher sighed. We began again to repeat each one as he said it, and this time the results were better when he called on one of the goose children to recite the letters.

  It was, I think, the longest morning of my life. When he finally released us just before noon, my back ached and my legs hurt from sitting still so long. I had wasted a morning and learned nothing. No. I corrected my thought as I staggered to my feet on stiff legs and spindled my sheet of letters into a roll. I had learned that Taffy, Lea, and Elm would always hate me. I had learned that my teacher despised me and was more interested in punishing me than in teaching me. And lastly, I had learned how quickly my own feelings could change. The infatuation with FitzVigilant that I had tended and nurtured since I had seen him arrive had been abruptly replaced with something else. It wasn’t hate. There was too much sadness mixed with it to be hate. I didn’t have a word for it. What would I call a feeling that made me want to never encounter that person again, in any situation? I suddenly knew I had no appetite for a noon meal at the same table with him.

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  The pantry entrance to my lair was too close to the kitchens. I was sure both Elm and Lea would be there, sowing gossip about the morning’s lessons and then waiting table. And Scribe FitzVigilant would be at the table. No. I went to my bedroom and carefully divested myself of Careful’s finery. As I set the lace aside, I reflected that she had been kind to me. As had Revel. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder what I could do that would show them I appreciated that. Well, in a few days my father had promised to take me to the market. I knew that Careful had admired my little bottles of scent. I would get one for her. And Revel? For him, I was not sure. Perhaps my father would know.

  I set aside my new tunic and the heavy stockings and crawled back into my short one and my old leggings. Feeling much more like myself, I slipped into my old bedchamber and from there into the labyrinth of wall tunnels. I went by feel this time, needing no light. When I came to my den, I smelled the
warmth of the sleeping cat. I touched his lax form, once more bundled in our cloak. Then I stepped over him and made my way to my father’s true study. There I filched a candle, kindled it at his hearth, and chose a scroll about Taker Farseer, the first King of the Six Duchies. It was in my father’s hand, probably his copy of some older writing. I wondered why he had it out on his desk. In my den I made myself comfortable with my cushions, the candle, my blanket, the cloak, and a warm cat. I had thought only to share the cloak’s warmth; I had never realized how much heat a cat could generate. We were quite comfortable there, and when he woke it seemed only fair to give him a share of the hard bread and sausage that had become my noon repast.

  Cheese?

  “I haven’t any here. But I’ll get some for us. I’m surprised to find you here. I shut the pantry hatch the last time you left. ”

  This warren is full of holes. Where a rat can go, a cat can follow.

  “Really?”

  Most of the time. There are many small ways in. And the hunting here is good. Mice, rats. Birds in the upper reaches.

  He subsided and crept back under the cloak, where he snuggled his body against mine. I resumed reading, amusing myself by trying to sort the flattery from the facts in this account of my ancient ancestor. Taker had arrived, dispatched the savage wretches who had tried to fend him and his men off, and had, in his lifetime, transformed Buckkeep from the crude log fortification he first raised to a stone-walled fortress. The castle itself had been many years in rising, built largely from the tumbled stone so prevalent in the area. Much of it had been available as perfectly carved blocks.

  My father had made some notes between the lines of that section. He seemed interested that Buckkeep Castle had evidently been raised first as a timber stronghold on top of the tumbled stone foundation of a more ancient keep. It had been rebuilt in stone, but he had inked in several questions as to who had built the original stronghold of worked stones and what had become of them. And to one side, there was a little drawing of what he believed had been standing as stone walls when Taker first arrived. I studied it. Obviously my father believed that there had been a great deal of castle there already and Taker had only rebuilt what someone else had torn down.

  The cat sat up a moment before I became aware that my father was in his study. As he closed the doors and then opened the hinge-catch, the cat vanished in a furry streak. I snatched up the cloak, rolled it into a ball, and thrust it to the back of my cupboard. There was no time to hide the scroll I had taken from his study before he came down the passage, stooped over and bearing his own candle. I looked up at him and he smiled down on me. “Well, there you are!” he said.

  “Yes,” I agreed.

  He folded his legs and, uninvited, sat on my rug beside me. He waited a moment and when I didn’t say anything, began with, “I missed you at noon. You didn’t come to eat with us. ”

  “I wasn’t hungry,” I said.

  “I see. ”

  “And after a long morning among so many people, I wanted to be alone for a time. ”

  He nodded to that, and something in the set of his mouth told me he understood that need. With the back of his forefinger, he tapped the scroll. “And what’s this you’re reading?”

  Face it squarely. “I took it from your scroll rack. It’s about Taker Farseer and how he first raised a fortification on the cliffs above Buckkeep Town. ”

  “Um. Long before there was a Buckkeep Town. ”

  “So. Who had the ruins belonged to?”

  He furrowed his brow. “My guess is that it was an Elderling fortification. The stone is the same used in the standing stones near there, the Witness Stones. ”

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  “But the Elderlings had all sorts of powerful magic. Why would they need a fort? Who were their enemies? And who destroyed the castle the first time?”

  “Now, that is a very good question. Not many people have asked it, and so far as I know, no one can answer it. ”

  The conversation lapsed, and to say something I blurted out, “One day I should like to visit Buckkeep Castle. ”

  “Would you? Then you shall. ” He fell silent again, and then spoke as if words were painful. “Your tutor spoke of the morning’s lesson today when we were at table. ”

  I said nothing. Absurdly, I wished the cat were with me.

  My father sighed. “He praised the goose-herder’s children for their skill at arithmetic. And was very pleased to discover that Larkspur could read and write. ”

  I waited. He gave a small cough, and added, “Lady Shun asked then what good numbers could do for a child who would grow up to manage geese. Or what a gardener might read on the earth or in leaves. She sees no sense to educating the children of servants. ”

  “Revel can read and write and do figures,” I pointed out. “Mama used to give him lists and he would take money and buy things she wanted at the market, and bring back the right amount. Even a goose girl should know enough numbers to count the eggs in a nest! And Larkspur will learn much from reading Lady Patience’s scrolls on plants and gardening. Cook Nutmeg knows how to read and write, and how to keep track of how many sacks of flour or how much salt fish she needs for the winter. ”

  “You make a good argument,” my father said, approvingly. “Much the same one that I presented to Shun. And then I asked Lant how you had fared at your lessons. ”

  Lant. My father called him Lant now, as if he were my cousin. I looked down at my blanketed feet. They had been warmer when the cat had been there. And I felt slightly ill, as if something terrible had fallen into my stomach and squatted there.

  “I did not like what I heard,” my father said quietly.

  There was no one in the world who loved me. I swallowed hard. My words came out breathlessly. “I could not explain. ” I shook my head wildly and I felt tears fly from my eyes. “No. He didn’t really want me to explain. He thought he knew what was true, and he did not want to be wrong. ”

  I hugged my knees tightly to my chest, pulling them in hard, wishing I could break my own legs. Wishing I could destroy myself so I could escape these terrible feelings.

  “I took your side, of course,” my father said quietly. “I rebuked him for not asking me about your intellect. Or speaking with you before lessons were to start. I told him that he had deceived himself about you; you had not lied to him. And I told him he would have one more chance to instruct you at a level befitting what you had taught yourself. And that if he could not, he might continue to instruct the other children, but I would not allow you to waste your time. That I would find it a pleasure to instruct you myself in all I think you need to know. ”

  He said the words so calmly. I stared at him, unable to breathe. He cocked his head at me. His smile looked shaky. “Did you imagine I could do otherwise, Bee?”

  I coughed and then flung myself into his lap. My father caught me and held me tight. He was so contained that it did not hurt. But for all that, I felt the anger that simmered in him like hot oil inside a lidded pot. He spoke in such a growl I felt as if it were Wolf-Father speaking inside me. “I will always take your part, Bee. Right or wrong. That is why you must always take care to be right, lest you make your father a fool. ”

  I slid off his lap and looked up at him, wondering if he was trying to make a joke of all of it. His dark eyes were serious. He read my doubt. “Bee, I will always choose to believe you first. So it is your serious responsibility to be righteous in what you do. It is the pact that must exist between us. ”

  I could never bear his gaze for long. I looked aside from him, pondering it. Thinking of the ways I already deceived him. The cloak. The cat. My explorations of the tunnels. My stolen reading. But did not he also and already deceive me? I spoke quietly. “Does this go both ways? That if I always take your part, I will not end up a fool?”

  He didn’t answer immediately. In a strange way, that pleased me, because I knew it meant he was th
inking it through. Could he promise me that I could always believe he was doing what was right? He cleared his throat. “I will do my best, Bee. ”

  “As will I, then,” I agreed.

  “So. Will you sit down to dinner with us, then?”

  “When the time comes,” I said slowly.

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  “Child, you’ve been in here for hours. I suspect they are holding dinner for us now. ”

  That was too sudden. I clenched my teeth for a moment and then asked him honestly, “Must I? I do not feel I am ready to face them, yet. ”

  He looked down at his hands, and I felt a dreadful gulf open in my belly. “You need to do this, Bee,” he said softly. “I want you to think of what tidings Riddle must carry back to your sister. I do not wish Shun or FitzVigilant to see you as backward or awkward. So, young as you are, you must master yourself and your feelings and come to table tonight. I understand, far better than you can imagine, what you feel toward someone who mocked you and punished you when he was supposed to be teaching you. It will be hard for you to believe this, but I don’t think he is an inherently cruel man. I think he is just very young, and prone to take the word of others before he finds out things for himself. I even dare to hope that he will prove worthy of your regard, and that you might even come to enjoy each other. Though I will add that right now it is difficult for me to pretend to enjoy his company. Something that I suspect he knows. ”

  His voice sank to a low growl on those last words, and I realized then that my father was profoundly angry with FitzVigilant. He would observe the rules of society but it did not abate the active dislike that the scribe had wakened in him. I looked at my hands folded loosely in my lap. If my father could do so, if he could contain his anger and treat FitzVigilant in a civil fashion, then perhaps I could do so as well. I tried to imagine myself sitting at the table. I did not have to sit with my head lowered as if guilty. Nor did I have to let him know how badly he had hurt me. I could be my father’s daughter. Impervious to what he had done. Sure of my own worthiness. I lifted my chin. “I think perhaps I am hungry after all. ”

 

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