Fools assassin, p.64
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       Fools Assassin, p.64

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

  “What? Oh. It’s behind the inn. And come right back, you hear me?” He twisted away to reply to something FitzVigilant had said to him. Odd, how I must never interrupt, but my tutor saw no reason to observe the same courtesy to me. “It’s country food, Lant. Different from what you’d find in a Buckkeep Town tavern, but not bad. Try the soup. ”

  I had to wiggle to turn on the bench and then get down from it. I do not think my father had even noticed me leaving. On my way to the door, a large woman nearly stepped on me, but I darted round her. The door was so heavy I had to wait until someone was coming in before I could slip out. The cooler air greeted me; it seemed as if the bustle of the street and merry atmosphere had increased as evening drew closer. I stepped just slightly away from the door so that I would not be hit if it opened, and then I had to move out of the way again because a man needed to unload a cart of firewood for the tavern next door. So I crossed the street and watched a man juggling three potatoes and an apple. He sang a merry little song as he juggled. When he was finished, I twisted to reach past my new market bag and dug deep into my new little pouch. In the bottom I found my half-copper. When I gave it to him, he smiled and gave me the apple to keep.

  It was definitely time for me to go back to the tavern and find my father, much as I dreaded being dragged about on Shun’s errands now. But perhaps my father would send Riddle with her or just give her money to waste. A wagon full of cider kegs with a team of four horses had stopped in the street, so I had to go around it. To get back to the tavern, I must walk past the gray beggar.

  I stopped to look at him. He was so empty. Not just his dirty pleading hand on his knee, but all of him, as if he were a plum skin hanging on a tree after wasps had stolen all its sweet flesh and left only an empty shell. I looked at his empty hand, but I desperately wanted to keep my two coppers. So I said, “I’ve an apple. Would you like an apple, beggar?”

  He shifted his eyes toward me as if he could see me. They were terrible, dead and clouded. I did not want him to look at me with such eyes. “You are kind,” he said, and I bravely stooped to set the apple in his hand.

  Just then the door of the spice shop opened and the thin little woman who owned it stepped out. “You!” she exclaimed. “Are you still squatting here? Away! I told you, get away! A street full of customers and my shop is empty because no one wants to step over your smelly bones and rags. Away! Or my husband comes with his stick to teach you how to dance!”

  “I go, I go,” the beggar said softly. His gray hand had closed on the red apple. He tucked the fruit into the breast of his ragged tunic and began the slow struggle to rise. The woman was glaring at him. I stooped, found the staff he was groping for, and put it into his hand. “You are kind,” he said again. He gripped the stick tight, one hand above the other, and levered himself to his feet. He swayed and turned his face slowly from side to side. “Is the street clear?” he asked piteously. “If I step out now, is the street clear?”

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  “Clear enough. Go now!” The spice woman spoke harshly as a team and wagon rounded the corner, heading our way, and I resolved never to buy anything in her store.

  “Don’t step out,” I warned him. “You’ll be crushed. Wait and I’ll walk across with you. ”

  “Well, aren’t you the interfering little snippet!” She bent forward at the waist to mock me. Her heavy breasts lunged at me like chained dogs. “Does your mother know you are running wild on the street and talking to dirty beggars?”

  I wanted to say something clever back to her, but she turned back into her shop, calling, “Heny? Heny, that beggar is still blocking our door! See him off, as I asked you to do hours ago!”

  The rumbling wagon had passed. “Come with me now,” I said. He smelled very bad. I didn’t want to touch him. But I knew that my father would not have left him there at the mercy of the spice woman. It was time for me to begin behaving as my father’s daughter. I took hold of his staff below his grip. “I’ll guide you,” I told him. “Step now. Come. ”

  It was a slow business. Even with both hands grasping his stick, he could barely stand. He took two little steps, hopped his stick forward, and took two more little steps. As I guided him out into the street and away from the door of the spice shop, I realized suddenly I did not know where to put him. There, he had been sheltered from the wind. To either side of us, the doors of the shops were busy with customers coming and going. Ahead of us was only the town commons. We hitched along slowly toward it. No one had returned to the place where the dog had died. Someone had taken her body away and the bull’s head, and as my father had asked, they had spread clean snow there, but the blood had soaked up through it. Pink snow, almost pretty, if one did not know what it was. I do not know why I guided him there, except that it was an open space. The canvas that had covered the bull’s head was on the ground under the tree. Perhaps he could sit on that.

  I glanced back at the tavern door, knowing that if I did not return soon, my father or Riddle would come after me. Perhaps both of them.

  Or perhaps neither. Shun was there and she was fully capable of keeping both of them occupied to the point at which they would forget about me. A nasty feeling smothered my heart. Jealousy. I finally named it for what it was. I was jealous.

  It fueled my desire to help the blind beggar. I would not go back. They would have to come and find me, and when they did, they would see that I could be as brave and kind as my father. Helping a beggar that no one else would touch. A man by a tinker’s cart was staring at us in distaste. Plainly he wanted us to move farther away from him. I steeled my resolve and shifted my bag to settle firmly on my shoulder. “Give me your arm,” I said boldly. “I can help you walk better. ”

  He hesitated, knowing how disgusting he was. Then his weariness won. “You are too kind,” he said, almost sadly, and held out his stick of an arm. I took it. He lurched a little. I was shorter than he had expected. His dirty hand gripped my forearm.

  The world wheeled around us. The sky rainbowed. There had been a fog, but it had been a fog I had looked through all my life. Now it parted, as if a wind of joy had torn through it. I looked in awe at a beauty that tore my heart wide open. All of them, the scowling tinker, the holly-crowned girl kissing a boy behind a tree, the inn cat under the porch, the old man bartering for a new felted hat, all of them burst forth in glorious colors I had never imagined existed. Their flaws were overcome by the potential for beauty in each of them. I made a small sound and the beggar sobbed aloud.

  “I can see,” he cried out. “My sight has come back to me. I can see! Oh, my light, my sun, where have you come from? Where have you been?”

  He gathered me to his breast and embraced me and I was glad of it. The beauty and the possibility of glory that blossomed all around me flowed from him through me. This, this was how it was supposed to be done. Not in tiny glimpses, not as unconnected dreams. Everywhere I looked, possibilities multiplied. It reminded me of the first time my father had lifted me to his shoulder and I suddenly realized how much farther he could see from his height. But now I saw, not just from a better vantage, not just to a distance, but to all times. It was comforting to be held safe at the middle of that swirling vortex. I did not fear as I allowed my sight to follow the myriad threads. One caught my attention. The kissing girl would marry that boy, crowned with orange blossoms, and bear him nine children at a farm in a valley. Or not. She might dally with him for a time, and marry another, but her memory of this moment would add sweetness to every pie she baked, and the love she had known would be shared with chickens and cats until she died, barren, at seventy-two. But no. They would run away together, this very night, and lie together in the forest, and the next day, on the road to Buckkeep, they would both die, he of an arrow wound and she would be raped and torn and cast aside to die in a ditch. And because of that, her older brothers would band together and become the Oaksby Guard. During the time of their patrols, they would tak
e the lives of fifty-two highwaymen and save over six hundred travelers from pain and death. The numbers were plain. It was suddenly so very simple. All I had to do was give them a tiny nudge. If I smiled at them as they strolled the village green and told them, “You shine with love. Love should not wait. Run away tonight!” they would see me as a harbinger and take my advice. His pain would last but a moment, and hers only hours. Less time than she would spend struggling in childbirth for her first child. I had the power. I had the power and the choice. I could do so much good in the world. So much good. There were so many choices I could make for the good of the world. I would start with the holly-crowned girl.

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  He clutched me tighter and spoke by my ear. “Stop. Stop. You must not! Not without great thought and then … even then … there is so much danger. So much danger!”

  He turned my eyes, and the threads splintered into a thousand more threads. It was not as simple as I had thought. For every thread I tried to follow became a multitude, and the moment I chose one thread from that multitude, it shattered again into yet more possibilities. She might say the wrong word to him and he would murder her this afternoon. She told her father she had kissed him and her father blessed them. Or cursed them. Or drove her from her home into the storm, to die of cold in the night.

  Some are far more likely than others, but each has at least one chance to be real. So each path must be studied so carefully before any path is chosen. The path you observed, where they both must die? If we were dedicated to this creation of the Oaksby Guard, we would look and look. There are, always, other time paths that lead to the same end. There will be some more destructive and ugly, and some less so.

  I had thought he was speaking aloud to me. I became aware that his thoughts were seeping into me through the bond we shared. He poured knowledge from his mind to mine as if he were a pitcher and I the cup. Or the thirsty garden that only been waiting, all this time, for this nourishment.

  And the paths change, they change constantly. Some vanish, impossible now, and others grow more likely. That is why the training takes so many years. So many years. One studies, and one pays attention to the dreams. Because the dreams are like guideposts for the most significant moments. The most significant moments. …

  He took his attention from me, and it was as if someone had torn a warm cloak from me in the midst of an ice storm. He stared with his blind eyes, terror and joy stamped on his scarred face. “The wolf comes,” he recited. “His teeth are a knife, and the flying drops of blood are his tears. ”

  Then my vision faded to the same sort of sight one has in deep twilight before the last light of the day fades. All colors were muted and shadows prevailed, hiding all detail from me. I thought I would die. All possibility was hidden, masked and limited to a single instant of time. I felt I could not move. Life was stiff and limited and slow. Time had been a limitless ocean, spreading out in every direction, and I had been a seabird, free to wheel and flit from one moment to a thousand other possibilities. Now I was mired in a tiny puddle, struggling to experience even one second fully, blinded to the future consequences of any action I might take. I stopped and stood and let life happen around me.

  Chapter Thirty

  Collision

  My wolf taught me as much as I ever taught him. But strive as he might, he never completely succeeded in teaching me to exist in the now as he did. When we spent quiet snowy nights sprawled on the hearth before a comfortable fire, the wolf had no need of conversation or a scroll to read. He simply enjoyed the comfort of warmth and resting. When I would rise to pace the small room, or pull a burnt stick from the embers to scratch idly on the hearthstones or take up paper and pen, he would lift his head, sigh, and then put it back down and resume his enjoyment of the evening.

  When we hunted together, I would move nearly as silently as he did, watching, always watching for the flick of an ear or the shift of a hoof, that tiny motion that would betray a deer standing poised in the brush, waiting for us to pass by. I would flatter myself that I was completely in the now, tuned exclusively to the hunt. And so intent would I be on that watch that I would startle when, with a pounce and a shake, Nighteyes would kill a crouched rabbit or huddled grouse that I had walked right past. I always envied him that. He was open to all the information that the world offered him, a scent, a sound, a tiny movement, or just the brush of life against his Wit-sense. I never achieved his ability to open himself to everything, to be aware of all that was happening, all at once.

  Unsigned journal entry

  I hadn’t taken more than a step before Riddle was up and beside me. He caught at my arm. His mouth was a flat line as I turned to him. He spoke quietly, almost without inflection, as if he himself had no idea how to feel about his words. “I need to say this before we go fetch Bee. Fitz, it isn’t working. In fact, it’s exactly what Nettle feared. You’re a good man. And my friend. I hope you can remember that I’m your friend as I say this. You’re not a good … you aren’t able to be a good father. I have to take her back to Buckkeep with me. I promised Nettle that I would see how things were going for both of you. She didn’t trust herself to decide; she was afraid she’d be too critical. ”

  I pushed down my sudden flare of anger. “Riddle. Not now. And not here. ” Later, I’d think about his words and what they meant. I shrugged free of his hand on my arm. “I need to find Bee. She’s been gone too long. ”

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  He caught at my sleeve and I had to turn back to him. “Exactly. But until I pointed it out, you hadn’t noticed that. The second time today that she’s been put into danger. ”

  Shun had a fox’s ears. She was eavesdropping. Behind us, she made a small sound between disgust and amusement and spoke for me to hear. “And he says you are not fit to teach his daughter,” she observed to FitzVigilant snidely. I nearly turned to her but the wolf in my heart leapt to the forefront. Find the cub. Nothing else matters.

  Riddle had also heard her. He dropped his grip on my sleeve and started toward the door. I was two steps behind him. All manner of thoughts raced through my mind. Oaksbywater was not a large town, but all sorts of folk would be converging on it for Winterfest. All sorts of people, bent on having a good time. And for some of them, a good time could involve hurting my little girl. I barked my hip on a table’s edge and two men shouted as their beer leapt over the rims of their mugs. Then Shun was stupid enough to seize my sleeve. She had come after me and Lant trailed her. “Riddle can find Bee. Holder Badgerlock, we need to settle this once and for all. ”

  I ripped my sleeve from her grip so abruptly that she cried out and clutched her hand to her chest. “Did he hurt you?” FitzVigilant exclaimed in horror.

  Riddle had reached the door and was waiting for two very large patrons to come in before he could go out. He leaned to look around them. Then, “No! Stop! Put her down!” Riddle roared the words as he slammed through the two men trying to come into the tavern and out the door. I lunged away from Shun and crossed the crowded tavern in a stumbling run. The door stood wide open and I bolted through it. I gazed wildly around the busy commons. Where had Riddle gone, what had he seen? Folk were treading calmly through the snow, a dog sat scratching itself, and the driver of the emptied wagon in front of the inn chirruped to his team. Past the wagon I caught a glimpse of Riddle, running through startled idlers toward a ragged beggar who had lifted my small daughter in his crooked dirty hands and held her tight to his breast. His mouth was by her ear. Trapped against him, she was not struggling. Instead she was very, very still, her feet dangling, her face looking up into his, her lax hands open and held wide as if begging something from the sky.

  I passed Riddle and somehow my knife was in my hands. I heard a sound, a roaring like a beast and a roaring in my ears. Then my arm was around the beggar’s throat, pulling his face away from my daughter’s, and as I bent his head back with the crook of my elbow, I plunged my knif
e into his side, once, twice, three times at least. He screamed as he let go of her, and I dragged him back with me, away from my child in her red-and-gray shawl, fallen like a torn rose in the snow.

  Riddle was there in an instant, wise enough to snatch my daughter from the snowy ground and fall back with her. His right arm held her to his heart while his left had his own knife at the ready. He looked all around, seeking some other foe or target. Then he glanced down at her, took two steps back, and shouted, “She’s fine, Tom. A bit stunned but fine. No blood!”

  Only then did I become aware of people shouting. Some were fleeing the violence, others converging in a circle around us as eager as crows at a killing. I still held the beggar in my arms. I looked down into the face of the man I had killed. His eyes were open, grayed over and blind. Row of scars lined his face in lovingly inflicted lines. His mouth was crooked. The hand that clutched still at my strangling arm was a bird’s claw of crookedly healed fingers.

  “Fitz,” he said quietly. “You’ve killed me. But I understand. I deserve it. I deserved worse. ”

  His breath was foul and his eyes like dirty windows. But his voice had not changed. The world rocked under my feet. I stumbled back, and sat down hard in the snow, the Fool in my arms. I realized where I was, under the oak, in the bloody snow where the dog had bled. Now the Fool bled. I felt the warm blood from his wounds soaking my thighs. I dropped my knife and pressed my hand to the punctures I had made. “Fool,” I croaked, but I had no breath to make words.

  He moved one hand, blindly groping, asking with infinite hope, “Where did he go?”

 
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