Fools assassin, p.68
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       Fools Assassin, p.68

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

  “You’ll carry me?”

  “I have before. You weigh hardly anything and it seems the easiest thing to do. ”

  He was silent for a time. Then he said, “I think I can walk. At least part of the way. ”

  It puzzled me, but I didn’t argue with him. Almost as if our words had summoned him, a page entered the infirmary. He had flakes of snow still on his hair and shoulders, and carried a lantern. He looked around and then called, “Tom Badgerlock? I’ve come to fetch Tom Badgerlock. ”

  “I’m here,” I told him. As I turned to him, Nettle suddenly left Riddle’s bedside. She gripped my sleeve and pulled me to one side. She looked up at me, her face so like her mother’s in that moment that I felt Molly had returned from the grave to reproach me. “He says I’m not to hold you accountable, that he volunteered. ”

  “No. I asked him. He knew that if he didn’t help me, I’d try it alone. And I am accountable. And I’m sorry. ”

  “I’m sure you are. ”

  I bowed my head to that. After a moment, she added, “People love you far more than you deserve, Tom Badgerlock. But you don’t even believe that they love you at all. ” I was still pondering that when she added, “And I am one of those people. ”

  “Nettle, I’m so—”

  “Say it again and I’ll hit you. I don’t care who is watching. If I could ask one thing of you, it would be that you never say those stupid words again. ” She looked away from me to the Fool. “He’s your friend, since childhood. ” Her tone said she understood that he was a rare creature.

  “He was. He is. ”

  “Well. Go take care of him, then. Riddle will be fine when he has rested. ” She put her hands to her temples and rubbed them. “And Bee? My sister?”

  “I left her with FitzVigilant. I think she’ll be fine. I don’t intend to be away for long. ” As I said those words, I wondered how long I would be away. Would I stay here while the Fool rebuilt his strength until we could attempt a full Skill-healing? Should I try to go back in the morning, via the stones, and then return in a few days? I was torn. I longed to be in both places.

  “If she’s with Lant, she’ll be fine. ” I was not at all sure I agreed with her judgment, but it seemed a very poor time to tell her that. The relief in Nettle’s voice made me wonder if I had misjudged the young scribe. Then she woke guilt in me by adding, “We should send a bird to tell them that you arrived here safely. ”

  I glanced at the Fool. He had struggled to a sitting position and draped the blanket around his shoulders. He looked pathetically feeble, and older than me by a hundred years.

  “I’ll do it,” Nettle continued before I could ask. “Do you want me to ask a guardsman to help you move your friend?”

  “I think we can manage alone,” I said.

  She nodded quietly. “I sensed that. You don’t want many folk to know he is here. For the life of me, I don’t know why. But I’ll respect your love of secrecy. Well, most of the servants are busy with the feast, so if you are cautious, you should be able to get him moved without being noticed. ”

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  So I took the Fool to Lady Thyme’s old chambers. It was a lengthy process, cold and wet for both of us as he insisted on hobbling across the courtyard to the door on his own. He cloaked his shoulders in the blanket, and his feet were still bound in rags. Wind and snow swept past us as we made our limping way. Using the servants’ passageways meant that we had to take the long way round to everything. He took my arm for the climb up the narrow stairways and leaned on me more heavily with every step. The boy guiding us kept looking back at both of us in wonder and suspicion. At some point, I realized my garments were stained with the Fool’s blood. I offered him no explanation.

  At the door to Lady Thyme’s old chambers, the page halted and offered me a large key on a heavy loop of blue cord. I took it and the small lantern he carried and told him to go. He went with alacrity. “Lady Thyme” had not existed for decades but the rumor that she haunted these chambers still had not faded. That masquerade suited Chade, and he maintained it still.

  The room we entered was dim and fusty. A stand of candles on a dusty table gave off a poor light. The room smelled of disuse and ancient cloying perfume. And old woman. “I’m going to just sit down,” the Fool announced and nearly missed the chair I pulled out for him. He did not sit down so much as crumple into a heap. He sat still, breathing.

  I opened the wardrobe and was confronted by a packed bank of ancient gowns and shifts. They smelled as if they had never been laundered. Muttering about Chade’s idiocy, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled under the clothes to feel along the back panel. I rapped, pushed, and pried until suddenly the panel swung open. “We’ll have to crawl through,” I informed the Fool sourly. He didn’t reply.

  He had fallen asleep where he was. It was difficult to rouse him, and then I all but dragged him through the low hatch in the wardrobe. I helped him to Chade’s old chair before the fire, and then crawled back to latch the door to Lady Thyme’s room from the inside and extinguish the candles. By the time I had closed the entrance and returned to the Fool’s side, he was nodding off again. I woke him again and asked him, “Bath or bed?”

  The tub of water, still steaming slightly, was scenting the room with lavender and hyssop. A straight-backed chair was beside the tub. A low table held a towel, a pot of soft soap, a washrag, a cotton tunic and a blue wool robe in the old style of garb, and some thick stockings. They would serve. The Fool was unfolding himself like a battered jumping jack. “Bath,” he muttered and turned his blind face toward me.

  “It’s this way. ” I took his stick-arm in my hand and put my other arm around him. I walked him to the straight-backed chair. He dropped into it so heavily that he nearly overset it. He sat still, breathing. Without asking, I knelt and began to unwrap the long winding of rags that bound his feet. They smelled dreadful and stuck together so that I had to peel them away. I breathed through my mouth when I spoke.

  “Beside you is a table with all you need to wash yourself. And clothing for afterward. ”

  “Clean clothing?” he asked, as if I had give him a stack of gold. He groped and his hand rose and fell like a butterfly as it touched the bounty there. He lifted the pot of soap, smelled it, and made a small heartbreaking sound. He set it down carefully. “Oh, Fitz. You cannot imagine,” he said brokenly. Then his bony arm lifted, and his crooked hand shooed me away.

  “Call me if you need me,” I conceded. I took a candle and moved to the scroll racks at the far end of the room. He listened to my footfalls and did not look pleased when I halted at the end of the room, but that was as much privacy as I was granting him. I had no desire to discover him, drowned but modest, in the tub. I rummaged through the scrolls on the racks there and found one on the Rain Wilds, but when I took it to the table I found that Chade had already arranged reading material for me. Three scrolls on the proper way to prepare and use a King’s Man were set out for me. Well, and he was right. I’d best learn it. I carried them over to Chade’s old bed, lit a branch of candles there, kicked off my boots, propped the pillows, and settled to read.

  I was a third of the way through the first one, tediously written and overly detailed, about selecting a candidate who could share strength before I heard the gentle splash of water as the Fool eased into the tub. For a time, all was silent. I read my scroll, and periodically looked up to be sure he had not fallen asleep and sunk in the tub to drown. After a long soak, he began the slow process of washing himself. He made small sounds of both pain and eased muscles. He took his time about it. I was on the third scroll, a more useful one that gave specific symptoms that a King’s Man might be exceeding his limits, including information on how to feed strength back into a man, should that be necessary, when I heard him heave a great sigh and then there followed the sounds of someone exiting a tub. I did not look toward him.

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  “Can you find the towels and robe?”

  “I’ll manage,” he said shortly.

  I’d finished reading the scroll and was struggling to stay awake when I heard him say, “I’ve lost my bearings. Where are you?”

  “Over here. On Chade’s old bed. ”

  Even freshly bathed and attired in clean garments, he still looked terrible. He stood, the old blue robe hanging on him like slack canvas on a derelict ship as he clung to the back of the chair. What hair he had left was still weighted with water; it scarcely reached past his ears. His blind eyes were terrible dead things in his gaunt living face. His breathing sounded like leaking bellows. I rose and took his arm to guide him to the bed.

  “Fed, clean, and warm. New garments. A soft bed. If I were not so weary, I’d weep with gratitude. ”

  “Go to sleep instead. ” I opened the bedding for him. He sat down on the edge of it. His hands patted the clean linens, moved up to the plump pillow. It was an effort for him to swing his legs up onto the bed. When he lay back on the pillows, I did not wait, but covered him as if he were Bee. His hands gripped the top edge of the coverlet.

  “Will you stay here for the night?” It was a question rather than a request.

  “If you wish. ”

  “I do. If you don’t mind. ”

  I stared at him unabashedly. Freed of grime, the lines of inflicted scars on his face were perfectly etched. “I don’t mind,” I said quietly.

  He closed his filmed-over eyes. “Do you remember … a time I asked you to stay beside me for the night?”

  “In the Elderling tent. On Aslevjal. ” I remembered. We were both quiet for a time, and then the silence stretched out longer. I thought he had fallen asleep. I was suddenly exhausted. I walked around to the other side of the bed, sat down on the edge of it and then stretched out beside him, as carefully as if he were infant Bee. My thoughts went to her. What a day I had given her! Would she sleep well tonight or battle nightmares? Would she stay in her bed or creep off to hide herself behind the wall of my study? Strange little mite of a girl. I had to do better by her. I meant to, with every drop of my heart’s blood I meant to, but it seemed things always got in the way. And here I was, days away from her, trusting her care to a man I scarcely knew. And had insulted.

  “No questions?” the Fool asked of the dim room.

  He was the one, I thought, who should have questions. Starting with, Why did you stab me? “I thought you were asleep. ”

  “Soon. ” He sighed the weight of the world away. “You take me on such faith, Fitz. Years pass, I step back into your life, and you kill me. And then save me. ”

  I didn’t want to talk about how I had knifed him. “Your messenger reached me. ”

  “Which one?”

  “A pale girl. ”

  He was silent and then spoke in a voice full of sorrow. “I sent seven pairs of messengers to you. Over eight years, I sent them to you. And only one got through?”

  Seven pairs. Of fourteen messengers, one had reached me. Perhaps two. A great wave of dread rose in me. What had he fled, and did it still pursue him? “She died soon after reaching me. Those who chased her had shot some sort of parasites into her, and they were eating her from the inside. ”

  He was silent for a long time. “They love that sort of thing. Slow pain that inevitably gets worse. They love it when those they torment hope and beg for death. ”

  “Who loves it?” I asked quietly.

  “The Servants. ” All life had gone from his voice.

  “The servants?”

  “They used to be servants. When the Whites existed, their ancestors served the Whites. The prophet folk. My ancestors. ”

  “You’re a White. ” There was little written of them, and what I knew, I had learned mostly from the Fool. Once, they had lived alongside and among humanity. Long-lived and gifted with prophecy and the ability to see all futures. As they had dwindled and interbred with humans, they had lost their unique characteristics, but every few generations one such as he was born. A true White, such as the Fool, was a rarity.

  He made a small sound of skepticism in his throat. “So they would have you believe. And me. The truth is, Fitz, that I am a creature with enough White blood in me that it manifests almost completely. ” He took a deep breath as if to say more and then sighed deeply instead.

  I was confused. “That wasn’t what you told me years ago. ”

  He turned his head on the pillow, as if he could look at me. “That wasn’t what I believed, years ago. I didn’t lie to you, Fitz. I repeated to you the lie I had been told, the lie I believed all my life. ”

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  I told myself I had never believed it anyway. But I had to ask him, “Then you are not a White Prophet? And I am not your Catalyst?”

  “What? Of course I am. And you are! But I am not a full White. No full Whites have walked this world for hundreds of years. ”

  “Then … the Black Man?”

  “Prilkop? Far older than me, and probably of purer blood. And like the Whites of old, as he aged, he darkened. ”

  “I thought he darkened as he was able to fulfill his mission as a White Prophet? That as much as he was successful in setting the world on a better path, so he darkened?”

  “Oh, Fitz. ” He sounded weary and sad. After a long pause, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what the Servants took from me. Everything I thought I knew, every certainty. Have you ever stood on a sandy beach when the tide is coming in? Felt the waves come up around your feet and suck the sand from under you? That’s my life now. With every day, I feel I sink deeper into uncertainty. ”

  A hundred questions filled my mind. And I suddenly knew that, yes, I had believed that he was a prophet and I was his Catalyst. I had believed it, and I had endured the things he had foretold for me, and I had trusted. And if it had all been a lie, a deception practiced on him that he had perpetuated upon me in turn? No. That was what I could not believe. It was what I must not believe.

  “Is there anything more to eat? Suddenly I’m hungry again. ”

  “I’ll see. ” I rolled off the bed and went to the hearth. Whoever Chade had dispatched had been thorough. There was a covered pot on the kettle hook, swung to the edge of the coals where it would stay warm but not burn. I hooked it over the hearth and peeked in. A chicken had been stewed down to a morass of thready flesh in a thick brown broth. Onion and celery and parsnip mingled together in a friendly sauce. “Stewed chicken,” I told him. “Shall I bring you some?”

  “I’ll get up. ”

  His answer surprised me. “Earlier today, when I brought you here so quickly, I thought you balanced on the knife’s edge of death. Now you sound almost like yourself. ”

  “I’ve always been tougher than I looked. ” He sat up slowly and swung his legs out, feet groping for the floor. “But don’t deceive yourself. I doubted I would have survived longer than a couple more nights in the cold. I scarcely remember the last few days. Cold and hunger and pain. No difference between night and day, save that nights were colder. ” He stood and swayed. “I don’t know where you are,” he complained helplessly.

  “Stand still,” I bade him, as if he could do otherwise. I put a small table near Chade’s old chair, and then guided the Fool to his seat. I found dishes and cutlery on a shelf; Lady Rosemary kept a much more orderly lair than Chade had. I brought him a bowl of the chicken and a spoon, and then found a bottle of brandy and some cups. “How hungry are you?” I asked, eyeing what was left in the pot. My own appetite had wakened at the smell of the food. The toil of the Skill-journey I had mostly transferred to Riddle, but it had still been a long and taxing time since I’d last eaten.

  “Eat something,” the Fool replied, having sensed my dilemma.

  I dished out food for myself and sat down in Lady Rosemary’s chair with my bowl on my knee. The Fool lifted his head. “Do I smell brandy?”


  “It’s to the left of your bowl. ”

  He set down his spoon and a tremulous smile claimed his mouth. “Brandy with Fitz. By a fire. In clean clothes. With food. One last time, and almost I could die happy. ”

  “Let’s avoid the dying part, and have the rest. ”

  His smile grew stronger. “For a time, old friend. For a time. Whatever you did to me before we entered the stones, and Riddle’s sacrifice, then food and warmth and rest have pulled me back from that brink. But we shall not deceive each other. I know the rot I carry inside myself. I know you saw it. ” He lifted a claw-like hand to scratch his scarred cheek. “It isn’t a happenstance, Fitz. They deliberately created that within me, just as they etched my face with scars and tore the Skill from my fingertips. I do not fancy that I have escaped. They set a slow death to work inside me and then pursued me as I tottered away, striving to see that I always exerted myself to exhaustion each day, always threatening those who might aid me. I fancy I traveled faster and farther than they thought I would, but even that may be a fantasy. They plot in convolutions far beyond what you or I could imagine, for they have a map of the maze of time, drawn from a hundred thousand prophecies. I do not ask why you stabbed me because I already know. They set it in motion, and waited for you to do their evil will. They sought to hurt you as much as to kill me. No one’s fault but theirs. Yet you are still the Catalyst, and you turn my dying into an infusion of strength. ” He sighed. “But perhaps even that is their will, that you find me and bring me here. Is this a pebble, Fitz, that triggers the avalanche? I don’t know. I long to see as I once did, long to pick my way through a swirling mist of possibilities. But that is gone, lost to me when you brought me back from the dead. ”

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  I could not think of anything to say to that. I had long ago learned that with both the Fool and Chade, the quickest way to provoke silence was to ask too many questions. Left alone, they always shared more with me than perhaps they intended. And so I ate a portion of the chicken and drank Chade’s brandy and wondered about the Servants and his unexpected son and even the messengers he had sent who had not reached me.

  He finished the chicken in the pot, clattering his spoon about inside the dish to be sure that he’d had every bite. I refilled his brandy cup. “There is broth on the left side of your mouth,” I told him quietly. It had given me great pain to see him eat both so ravenously and so untidily. When I took his bowl away, I wiped the spatters and drips from the table. I had hoped not to shame him, but as he wiped his face he admitted, “I eat like a starved dog. A blind starved dog. I’m afraid I’ve learned to get as much food into me as quickly as I can. It’s hard to unlearn something so deliberately taught to me. ” He sipped from his cup and leaned his head back on the chair. His eyes were closed, but it was only when his lax hand twitched and his cup nearly fell that I realized he was falling asleep where he sat.

 
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