Fools assassin, p.6
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       Fools Assassin, p.6

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

  I pushed that concern aside for a moment. I reached for Nettle with the Skill, and swiftly shared most of what I knew with her. I made no mention of the blood or the carving. That was private.

  I’m with Mother. Riddle took Hearth and Just with him. He has told Just that he must guard Patience’s door while Riddle and Hearth are checking every unoccupied room in the manor.

  Excellent. How is your mother?

  Still sleeping. She looks as she always does and I can detect nothing wrong with her. But I was very alarmed when she fainted earlier. Much more worried than I wished her to see. Her father died when he was only two years older than she is now.

  He had ruined his health with drink, and the brawling and stupid accidents that go with it.

  Her mother died very young.

  I pressed my palms to my eyes and pushed on my brow with my fingers. It was too frightening. I could not think about it. Stay there with her, please. I’ve just a few more places that I wish to search, and then I’ll come take your place.

  I’m fine here. You needn’t hurry.

  Did she suspect what I was about to do? I doubted it. Only Patience and Molly and I knew of the concealed labyrinth of secret passages in Withywoods. While the peepholes within the passage did not give me a view of every single bedchamber, they would allow me to look in on many of them, to see if any harbored more guests than we had invited.

  It was closer to dawn than midnight when I emerged from the passageways. I was festooned with cobwebs, chilled to the bone, and weary. I had discovered nothing save that at least two of the housemaids were willing, for luck, fancy, or perhaps some coin, to spend the night in beds not their own. I’d seen one young wife weeping into her hands while her husband snored drunkenly halfway into their bed, and one old couple indulging in Smoke so potent that the slight drift of it into my secret passageway had dizzied me.

  But of the peculiar minstrels or the messenger’s body, there was no sign.

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  I returned to my room and released Nettle to go to hers. I did not sleep that night or even lie down, but sat in a chair by the hearth and watched over Molly and pondered. Had the intruders been insane enough to flee into the snowstorm, taking the messenger’s body with them? At least one had remained in Withywoods long enough to follow Revel and enter my den. Why? To what end? Nothing had been taken from there, no member of my household injured. I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

  But over the next few days it was as if we had dreamed the stray minstrels and the messenger. Molly recovered to feast, dance, and laugh with our guests for the rest of Winterfest with no sign of illness or weakness. I felt dirty that I kept my bloody knowledge hidden from her, and even worse that I bound her sons to silence, but both Nettle and Riddle agreed with me. She did not need the extra worry right now.

  Snow continued to fall for another day and a night, obscuring all signs of anyone who might have come or gone. Once the blood was cleaned from the floor, no trace remained of our foreign visitors. Revel surprised me by being able to keep a still tongue on the peculiar events, for Riddle, Nettle, and I had decided that discreet inquiries might win us more information than trumpeting our concerns about. But other than a few guests who commented on the foreigners who had arrived and departed from the feast without sharing any of the merriment, we discovered nothing. Web had little to say that he had not already told me. He had thought it odd that the woman would not tell him the name of the “friend” she was seeking. And that was all.

  Nettle, Riddle, and I debated telling Chade of the incident. I did not want to, but in the end they persuaded me. On the first quiet evening after Winterfest, when our guests had departed and Withywoods was comparatively quiet, I went to my study. Nettle accompanied me, and Riddle with her. We sat, she joined her thoughts to mine, and together we Skilled our tale to Chade. Nettle was a quiet presence as I presented my detailed report. I had thought she might offer more detail, but all I felt from her was a quiet confirmation of my telling. Chade asked few questions, but I sensed him storing every detail. I knew he would glean whatever information he could from his far-flung spy-network and share it with me. I was still surprised when he said, “I advise you to wait. Someone sent the messenger, and that one may reach out to you again when she does not return. Let Riddle go to Withy and spend some time in the taverns there for a few nights. If there is anything to hear, he will hear it. And I will make a few discreet inquiries. Other than that, I think you’ve done as much as you can. Except, of course, as before, I advise you to consider adding a few house soldiers to your staff. Ones who can serve a cup of tea or cut a throat with equal skill. ”

  “I scarcely think that’s necessary,” I said firmly, and sensed his distant sigh.

  “As you think best,” he finished and withdrew his mind from ours.

  I did as he suggested, sending Riddle to the taverns, but he heard nothing. No message arrived asking what had become of a messenger. For a time I walked with my hackles up, alert to anything that might be the slightest bit out of the ordinary. But as days and then months passed, the incident faded from the foreground of my mind. Riddle’s premise that perhaps none of them were what they had claimed to be, and that we had been passing witnesses to someone settling an old debt, was as valid as any I could imagine.

  Years later, I would marvel at my stupidity. How could I not have known? For years I had waited and longed for a message from the Fool. And when finally it came, I had not received it.

  Chapter Three

  The Felling of Fallstar

  A secret is only yours so long as you don’t share it. Tell it to one person, and it’s a secret no more.

  Chade Fallstar

  Chickens squawked, kids bleated, and the savory smell of sizzling meat floated in the summer air. Blue summer sky arched over the market stalls at Oaksbywater, the largest market town within an easy journey of Withywoods Manor. Oaksbywater was a crossroads town, with good access to the surrounding farms in the valley and a well-tended King’s Road that led to a port on the Buck River. Goods came from both up and down the river, and in from outlying villages. The tenth-day markets were the most crowded; farmers’ carts filled the market circle while smaller vendors had set up stalls or spread blankets on the village green under the spreading oaks by the lively creek that gave the town its name. The humbler merchants had no more than fresh vegetables or home crafts arranged on mats on the ground, while the farmers with larger holdings set up temporary benches to hold baskets of dyed woolens or rounds of cheese or slabs of smoked pork.

  Behind the tenth-day market stalls were the resident merchants of Oaksbywater. There was a cobbler’s shop, a weavers’ mercantile, a tinker, and a large smithy. The King’s Dogs Inn had set out benches and tables outside in the shade. The cloth merchant displayed racks of fabric and twisted hanks of dyed yarn for sale, the smith’s shop offered wares of tin and iron and copper, and the cobbler had brought his bench outside his shop and sat sewing a lady’s soft red slipper. The pleasant din of folks bargaining and gossiping ebbed and flowed in waves against my ears.

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  I was seated at one of the tavern’s benches under the oak, a mug of cider at my elbow. My errands were completed. We’d had a message from Just, the first to reach us in many a month. He and Hearth had left home almost three years ago. With youth’s fine disregard for the concerns of their elders, they’d sent messages only sporadically. Just had finished the first year of his apprenticeship with a wainwright in Highdowns, and his master was very pleased with him indeed. He wrote that Hearth had taken work on a river ferry and seemed content at that occupation. Molly and I had both rejoiced at the news that he was finally settled and doing well. But Just had added that he had lost his favorite belt-knife, a bone-handled one with a thin, slightly curved blade that the smith in Oaksbywater had made for him when he was thirteen. I’d put in the order for a replacement tw
o weeks ago and picked it up today. That single small package was at my feet beside a huddle of Molly’s purchases.

  I was watching the cobbler and wondering if Molly would like a pair of red slippers. But evidently that pair was spoken for; as I watched, a slender young woman with a mop of unruly dark curls sauntered from the market crowd to stand before the cobbler. I could not hear the words they spoke, but the man took three more stitches and a knot, bit off his thread, and offered the slipper and its mate to her. Her face alight with a saucy grin, she set her stacked coppers on his bench and sat down immediately to try on her new shoes. Freshly shod, she stood up, lifted her skirts almost to her knees, and tried a few dancing steps there in the dusty street.

  I grinned and looked around for someone to share my enjoyment of her unabashed pleasure. But the two old plowmen on the other end of my bench were complaining to each other about the prospect of rain or the lack thereof, and my Molly was out among the other shoppers enjoying a day of haggling with merchants. In the past, when the boys were younger and Patience alive, market days had been far more complicated trips. But in the space of little more than a year we’d lost my stepmother and seen the lads venture out on their own. For most of a year, I think we were both stunned by the abrupt change in our lives. For almost two years after that, we had floundered about in a home that suddenly seemed much too large. Only recently had we cautiously begun to explore our new latitude. Today we had escaped the confines of our life as lady and holder of the estate to take a day to ourselves. We’d planned it well. Molly had a short list of items she wished to buy. I needed no list to remind me that this was my day for idleness. I was anticipating music during an evening meal at the inn. If we lingered too late, we might even stay the night and begin our journey back to Withywoods the next morning. I wondered idly why the thought of Molly and me alone overnight in an inn raised thoughts more worthy of a boy of fifteen than a man of fifty years. It made me smile.

  FitzChivalry!

  The Skill-reaching was a shout inside my mind, an anxious cry that was inaudible to anyone else in the market. I knew in an instant that it was Nettle and that she was full of worry. The Skill was like that: so much information conveyed in an instant. A part of my mind noted that she called me FitzChivalry, not Tom Badgerlock or Tom or even Shadow Wolf. She never called me Father or Papa. I’d lost the right to those titles years ago. But “FitzChivalry” spoke of matters that had more to do with the Farseer crown than with our family ties.

  What’s wrong? I settled myself on the bench and fixed an empty smile on my face as I Skill-reached across the distance to Buckkeep Castle on the coast. I saw the uplifted branches of the oak against the blue sky, but was also aware of a darkened room around Nettle.

  It’s Chade. We think he took a fall and perhaps struck his head. He was found sprawled on the steps to the Queen’s Garden this morning. We don’t know how long he had been there, and we’ve been unable to rouse him. King Dutiful wishes you to come at once.

  I’m here, I assured her. Let me see him.

  I’m touching him now. You can’t feel him? I couldn’t and Dutiful couldn’t, and Thick was completely flummoxed. “I see him but he’s not there,” he said to us.

  Fear sent cold tendrils from my belly up to my heart. An old memory of Verity’s Queen, Kettricken, falling down those same steps—victim of a plot to kill her unborn child in the fall—filled my mind. I immediately wondered if Chade’s fall had been an accident at all. I tried to hide the thought from Nettle as I reached through her to grope for Chade. Nothing. I can’t sense him. Does he live? I asked, scrabbling for some semblance of calm. I pushed my Skill, and became more aware of the room where Nettle sat beside a draped bed. The curtained windows made it dim. There was a small brazier burning somewhere; I smelled the piercing smoke of restorative herbs. I sat out in the fresh air but felt the stuffiness of the closed room all around me. Nettle drew a breath and showed me Chade through her eyes. My old mentor was laid out as straight beneath his blankets as if he were stretched on a funeral pyre. His face was pale, his eyes sunken, and a bruise darkened one temple and swelled his brow on that side. I could see King Dutiful’s councilor through my daughter’s eyes, but had no fuller sense of him.

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  He breathes. But he will not wake and none of us has any sense of him being here. It’s as if I’m touching—

  Dirt. I finished the thought for her. That was how Thick had expressed it years ago, when I had begged him and Dutiful to reach out with the Skill and help me heal the Fool. He had been dead to them. Dead and already turning back into earth. But he’s breathing?

  I already told you he was! Frantic impatience bordering on anger tinged her words. Fitz, we would not have reached for you if this was a simple healing. And if he were dead, I’d tell you that. Dutiful wants you to come right now, as soon as possible. Even with Thick lending strength to them, the Skill-coterie has not been able to reach him. If we can’t reach him, we can’t heal him. You are our last hope.

  I’m at Oaksbywater market. I’ll need to go back to Withywoods, pack a few things, and get a saddle horse. I’ll be there in three days, or less.

  That won’t do. Dutiful knows that you won’t like the idea, but he wants you to come by the stone portals.

  I don’t do that. I asserted it strongly, already knowing that for Chade, I would risk it, as I had not in all the years since I had been lost in the stones. The thought of entering that gleaming blackness raised the hair on the back of my neck and my arms. I was terrified to the point of illness just thinking of it. Terrified. And tempted.

  Fitz. You have to. It’s the only hope we have. The healers we have called in are completely useless, but on one thing they agree. Chade is sinking. We cannot reach him with the Skill, and they say that all their experience tells them that within a few days he will die, his eyes bulging from his face from the blow to his head. If you arrive here in three days, it will be to watch him burn on a pyre.

  I will come. I formed the thought dully. Could I make myself do it? I had to.

  Through the stones, she pressed me. If you are at Oaksbywater, you are not far from their Judgment Stone on Gallows Hill. The charts we have show that it has the glyph for our Witness Stones. You could be here easily before nightfall.

  Through the stones. I tried to keep both bitterness and fear from my thought. Your mother is here at the market with me. We came in the high-wheeled cart. I will have to send her home alone. Parted yet again by Farseer business, the simple pleasure of a shared meal and an evening of a tavern minstrel’s songs snatched away from us.

  She will understand, Nettle tried to comfort me.

  She will. But she won’t be pleased by it. I broke my thoughts free of Nettle. I had not closed my eyes, but I felt as if I opened them. The fresh air and the clamor of the summer market, the bright sunlight dappling down through the oak’s leaves, even the girl in the red slippers seemed like sudden intrusions into my grimmer reality. I realized that while I had been Skilling, my unseeing gaze had been resting on her. She was now returning my stare with a querying smile. I lowered my eyes hastily. Time to go.

  I drained the last of my cider, thudded my empty mug back on the board, and stood, searching the milling market for Molly. I spotted her at the same time she saw me. Once she had been as slender as the girl in the red slippers. Now Molly was a woman easing past the middle years of her life. She was moving steadily if not swiftly through the crowd, a small, sturdy woman with bright dark eyes and a determined set to her mouth. She carried a fold of soft gray fabric over her arm as if it were a hard-won war trophy. For a moment the sight of her drove all other considerations from my mind. I simply stood and watched her coming toward me. She smiled at me and patted her merchandise. I pitied the merchant who had been the victim of her bargaining. She had ever been a thrifty woman; becoming Lady Molly of Withywoods had changed none of that. The sunlight glinted on the silver that threa
ded her once-dark curls.

  I stooped to retrieve her earlier purchases. There was a crock of a particular soft cheese that she enjoyed, a pouch of culkey leaves for scenting candles, and a carefully wrapped parcel of bright-red peppers that she had cautioned me not to touch with my bare hands. They were for our gardener’s granny: She claimed to know a potion formula that could ease the knots in old knuckles. Molly wanted to try it. Of late she suffered from an aching lower back. Beside it was a stoppered pot that held a blood-strengthening tea she wished to try.

  I loaded my arms and as I turned, I bumped into the red-slippers girl. “Beg pardon,” I said, stepping back from her, but she looked up at me with a merry smile.

  “No harm done,” she assured me, cocking her head. Then the curve of her smile deepened as she added, “But if you’d like to make up for nearly treading on my very new slippers, you might buy a mug of cider to share with me. ”

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  I stared at her dumbfounded. She’d thought I’d been watching her when I was Skilling. Well, actually, yes, I had been staring at her, but she had mistaken it for a man’s interest in a pretty girl. Which she was. Pretty, and young, much younger than I’d realized when I first noticed her. Just as I was much older than her interested gaze assumed. Her request was both flattering and unnerving. “You’ll have to settle for accepting an apology from me. I’m on my way to meet my lady wife. ” I nodded toward Molly.

  The girl turned, looked directly at Molly, and turned back to me. “Your lady wife? Or did you mean to say your mother?”

  I stared down at the girl. Any charm her youth and prettiness had held for me had vanished from my heart. “Excuse me,” I said coldly and stepped away from her and toward my Molly. A familiar ache squeezed my heart. It was a fear I fought against every day. Molly was aging away from me, the years carrying her farther and farther from me in a slow and inexorable current. I was nearing fifty years, but my body stubbornly persisted in holding the lines of a man of thirty-five. A Skill-enhanced healing from years before still had the power to waken and rage through me whenever I injured myself. Under its control, I was seldom ill, and cuts or bruises healed rapidly. Last spring I’d fallen from a hayloft and broken my forearm. I’d gone to sleep that night with it splinted firmly, and wakened ravenously hungry and thin as a winter wolf. My arm had been sore but I could use it. The undesired magic had kept me fit and youthful, a terrible blessing as I watched Molly slowly stoop under the burden of the stacked years she bore. The Skill refused to allow my body to keep pace with hers. The remorseless current of time bore her steadily away from me. Since her fainting spell at that Winterfest, her aging had seemed to accelerate. She tired more easily, and had occasional spells of dizziness and blurred vision. It saddened me, for her choice was to dismiss such things and refuse to discuss them afterward.

 
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