Fools assassin, p.70
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       Fools Assassin, p.70

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

  The door to Withywoods opened and closed, and then more shadows leapt and confused me as Revel came bearing a larger lantern. “Lady Bee?” he asked the air, and “A moment more, please,” I replied hoarsely. I was trying. Why did they all wish to hurry me when I was so cold?

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  He came to the edge of the wagon and watched me finish gathering my little parcels. He looked shocked and disapproving. Yet he nodded to Perseverance in a way that promised he would not forget his service, and the stable boy ducked his head. When I had all my things, I stood slowly and hobbled stiffly to the tail of the wagon. “The big packages belong to Lady Shun and Scribe FitzVigilant,” I told him as he raised his brows at the remaining baskets and sacks.

  “I see,” he replied gravely. “Boy, I’ll send someone out to fetch those things. Then you may take the team and wagon to the stable. ”

  “Sir,” Perseverance replied. Then, to my utter astonishment, Revel picked up my market bag and then lifted me from the tail of the wagon and carried me to the house. He was a tall man, taller than my father, and he made nothing of carrying me and my packages. I was tired and it was hard to sit straight in his arms. My brow brushed his cheek and to my astonishment, it was as smooth as my own. And he smelled wonderful, like roses but with spice added. I spoke without thinking. “You smell so wonderful!”

  A smile replaced the concern on his angular face. “Such a kind thing to say, Lady Bee. I mix my fragrance oils myself. Perhaps one day you would like to help me do that?”

  “I would!” I declared with heartfelt enthusiasm.

  “Then you shall. Your mother taught me much of these scents when I first arrived here. It is only fitting that I pass on what she taught me to you. ”

  I was perched on one of his arms, shaking with cold. He opened the door with his free hand and without a pause carried me through the entrance hallway and down the corridor, directly to my room. Careful had just finished building the fire, and he set me down in front of it.

  “She is covered in snow! Lady Bee! Weren’t you under the wraps in the wagon?”

  I was too tired to explain it. Revel spoke as Careful began to divest me of my wet clothing. “She’s chilled through. I’ll have Cook Nutmeg send up a tray of hot food and tea. Can you see to her other needs?”

  She looked up at him with anxious eyes. “Lady Shun asked me to fetch in her purchases immediately. She wants my help in—”

  “I will find someone else to help her,” Revel announced firmly. He strode back to the door, paused and then said, “Lady Bee, we have not been informed as to what befell your father and Riddle, and I feel much concern that they have not returned with you. ”

  He knew it was not his place to ask for information, but I knew now he was my ally and I shared freely the little I knew. “There was a beggar in the marketplace who spoke to me. When he hugged me, my father feared for me and attacked him, hurting him badly. Then he realized the beggar was actually an old friend of his. So he and Riddle used the Skill-magic to take the beggar through the standing stone on Gallows Hill back to Buckkeep Castle, where perhaps he can be saved. ”

  The two servants exchanged a look over my head, and I realized that my factual account probably sounded completely mad to them. “Fancy that!” Careful said quietly.

  “Well. I’m sure your father knows what he is doing, and Riddle as well. A very practical man, that Riddle. ” The tone suggested that my father was not always practical. It would have been stupid to disagree with that. He whisked out the door.

  By the time Careful had helped me into my nightrobe I was shaking all over. It was my red nightrobe, the one my mother had made. Someone had laundered it and brought it to my room. She took a coverlet from the bed, warmed it before the fire, and then wrapped me in it. I didn’t protest but sat in the chair she pulled up to the hearth. There was a knock at the door, and a kitchen boy came in with a tray of steaming food. She thanked him and sent him on his way. As she set it out on a low table for me, I told her, “I didn’t forget you. I brought you presents from town. ”

  Her eyes lit with interest, but she said, “Tomorrow is soon enough for that, my lady. Tonight let’s get hot food into you and then get you into a warm bed. Your face is all red and white with cold still. ” She lifted my gray-and-red shawl, hefted the heavy wool approvingly, and then put it to dry. As she put away my other things from my basket, she found the packages and the trinkets I had bought for her and immediately possessed them, thanking me over again for thinking of her. I thought of the kerchiefs I had bought for Revel. Would he truly like them? I thought of how he had smelled when he lifted me. I knew he would enjoy one of my mother’s candles. My heart hurt at the thought of parting with even one, but I knew I would do it. He deserved it. Careful helped me into my bed and then moved quietly around the room, setting it to rights, humming as she did so.

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  I think I fell asleep before she left the room. I woke, probably hours later, to a chamber lit only by firelight. I tried to make sense of the day. So much wonder and terror packed into one day, and then to be abandoned at the end of it! I wondered why my father had not taken me with him, and who the beggar was that he was so important. My father had claimed he was his old friend. How was that possible? There was no one of whom I could ask those questions. All around me the house was very still. I slipped out of bed and went to the window, opening the shutters. The sky was black and snow was falling thickly. It was very late at night, or very early. And I was hungry and no longer sleepy at all.

  I was still chilled from the long ride home, with a cold that seemed to radiate from my own bones. I went to my wardrobe to find a wrap and discovered that someone had added a new robe for me. I took it out, and found it was made of soft red wool lined with wolf fur. And below where it had hung there were soft boots made just the same, but soled with leather. The moment I put them on, I felt both warmer and safer.

  I went first to my father’s bedchamber, to see if perhaps he had already returned. I found no comfort there. His bed was empty and the room so rigorously tidy that it could have belonged to anyone. Or no one. “This is not his true den,” I said aloud but softly. I nodded to myself, knowing now where I must go to find my answers.

  I padded softly through the darkened hallways. My eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and I made my way to his private study without encountering another soul. The silence in the house was almost unnatural, as if I were the sole inhabitant. As I approached the study, I rebuked myself for not bringing a candle, for I would need it if I intended to search his private library for clues to my questions. But when I came round the corner I saw that the door was slightly ajar; warm firelight spilled in a sweet wedge on the floor and up the wall.

  I pushed the door open and peered in. No one sat at the desk, but a large fire was burning merrily on the hearth. I stepped into the room, asking softly, “Father?”

  “I’m right here,” he replied. “I’m always here for you. ” The great gray wolf who had been sprawled on the hearth sat up slowly. He lolled his tongue out over his very white teeth as he yawned, and when he stretched, the black claws of his toes protruded and then retracted. Then he looked at me with his wild brown eyes and smiled.

  “Wolf-Father?”

  “Yes. ”

  I stared at him. “I don’t understand. ” I said faintly.

  “You don’t have to,” he replied comfortingly. “Understanding how or why is very seldom as useful as understanding that things are. I am. ”

  His voice was deep and calm. I moved slowly toward him. He sat very tall, his ears perked, watching me come to him. When I was closer, he took in my scent and said, “You’ve been frightened. ”

  “There was a dog killer in the market. My father couldn’t save the dog anything except pain. Then he killed someone, and unkilled him, and then went off with him. And left me all alone. ”

  “You’r
e not alone when I’m with you. I’m the father that is always with you. ”

  “How can a wolf be my father?”

  “Some things just are. ” He stretched out in front of the fire again. “Perhaps I’m the part of your father that never stops thinking about you. Or perhaps I’m a part of a wolf that didn’t end when the rest of me did. ” He looked up at the carved black stone on the fireplace mantel. I glanced at it. It had three faces, my father, a wolf, and … I stared for a long moment.

  “That was him. But much older. And blind and scarred. ”

  “The Scentless One. Then I do understand why your father went. He would have to. ”

  “He wasn’t scentless. He was a smelly old beggar, stinking of dirt and filth. ”

  “But having no scent of his own. He and your father are pack. I spent many days in his company as well. ” Wolf-Father looked up at me. “Some calls you cannot ignore, no matter how it may tear your heart. ”

  I sank slowly down to sit beside him. I looked at my feet, gray now with little black claws. The robe had changed. The wolf fur that had been on the inside of it was now on my outside. I curled up beside him and rested my chin on my paws. “He left me. The Scentless One is more important to him than I am. ”

  “That is not so. His need must have been greater. That is all. There comes a time when every cub is left to fend for himself. You’ll do well, if you don’t mire in self-pity. Self-pity only gets you more of the same. Don’t waste time on it. Your father will come back. He always comes back. ”

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  “Are you sure of that?” I wasn’t.

  “Yes,” he replied firmly. “And until he does, I am here. ”

  He closed his eyes. I watched him. The fire was warm on our backs and he smelled good, of wild clean places. I closed my eyes.

  I woke deep into the morning with Careful bustling about the chamber. “I’ve let you sleep in, as you came in so late, and Scribe FitzVigilant said that he would begin lessons late today as well. But now you must wake up and face the day, Lady Bee!”

  She wore her new beads, and a sprig of holly in her hair. “Is it Winterfest?” I asked her, and she smiled.

  “Tomorrow night. But the kitchen is already cooking for it, and very late last night some minstrels arrived offering to make it merry for us. Steward Revel decided to allow them to stay until he could ask your father’s permission. In your father’s absence he conferred with Scribe FitzVigilant, and he said of course they must stay. And this morning Lady Shun sat down with Revel to make up the menu for the feast! Oh, such dishes as she has ordered up! It will be a feast such as we haven’t seen in many a year!”

  I felt torn. I was excited to know there would be music and dancing and a great feast and insulted to think that it had all been arranged in my father’s absence and without his permission. My reaction puzzled me. Had he been home, I was certain he would have approved it. And yet to have those two arranging it all still offended me.

  I sat up in bed and asked, “What has become of my fur nightrobe?” For I was wearing my mother’s red woolen nightshirt.

  “A fur nightrobe? Did you buy a fur nightrobe in town? I’ve never heard of such a thing!” Careful hastened to my wardrobe and opened the door, only to reveal nothing of the sort.

  My head was clearing of the night’s fancies. “It was a dream,” I admitted to her. “I dreamed I had a nightrobe of wolf fur lined with red wool. ”

  “Fancy how warm that would make you! A bit too warm for my taste,” Careful said, laughing, and she set about finding clothes for me. She was disappointed that I had not bought new garments for myself while I was in town. She shook her head as she set out one of the too-large tunics and a new set of wool leggings. I let her chatter flow past me as I tried to relegate my experience to the status of “only a dream. ” It was not a dream such as I had had before; it was much more like the first time I had met Wolf-Father in the passages. Who was he? What was he? He was the wolf in the carving, just as the beggar was the “Scentless One. ”

  As soon as I was dressed I left the room, but instead of seeking breakfast I went to my father’s study. I opened the door to a chill room; the hearth had been swept clean since last it had been used. I touched the cold stones and knew that there had been no blazing fire in here last night. I looked again at the carved black stone on the mantel. Well, that part of my dream had been true. The other man in the carving was definitely the beggar as a youngster. I looked at his face and thought he must have been a merry fellow back then. I studied the wolf as well; the carver had done his dark, deep eyes justice. I suddenly envied my father, having such friends when he was just a boy. Who did I have? Perseverance, I told myself. Revel. And a cat who still hadn’t told me his name. For a moment I felt as if I could vomit loneliness and sadness. Then I squared my shoulders and shook my head. Self-pity would get me nothing but more of the same.

  There was another carving on the mantelpiece, one of wood. It was the wolf only. I took it down. It was hard and poked me when I hugged it, but for a long, long time I held it in my arms. I wanted it very badly, but I set it back where it had been. When my father came home, I resolved I would ask for it.

  I shut the study doors, latched them, and then opened the panel to my own den. I went up to my hiding place and checked my water and bread supplies. More candles, I decided. I felt I might be spending a lot of time in here until my father got back. It would let me be undisturbed, and I doubted anyone would miss me. The cat was not there, but he had left my cloak on the floor. I found it with my foot and then, as I stooped to pick it up, I discovered he had left a half-eaten mouse on it. Wrinkling my nose in disgust, I gathered the cloak and took it back to my father’s study with me. The tiny half-corpse I disposed of in the fireplace. I sniffed the cloak gingerly; it smelled of tomcat and dead mouse. I shook it out and folded it into a tiny packet. I’d have to find a private place to wash it out myself. And then, I resolved, I’d find a new hiding place for it, one not shared with a cat. He had asked for a basket and a blanket, and I hadn’t yet fulfilled that part of the bargain. Later today, I would. I thrust the handful of butterfly cloak into the front of my tunic, sealed up the secret panel, and left my father’s den after a final glance at the wolf.

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  I found little left of breakfast, but the dishes hadn’t been cleared, so I wrapped a bit of sausage in a piece of bread and ate it with a cup of lukewarm tea. It was enough and I was happy to slip out of the dining room as unnoticed as I’d entered.

  Reluctantly, I made my way to the schoolroom. The other students were there and waiting but FitzVigilant had not yet arrived. Perseverance sidled over to stand beside me. “Pups are settling in, but one has a bad infection where his tail was lopped off. Whoever did it just whacked it off, didn’t even go between the bones. Just whack! with a hatchet, probably. We had to pull bone splinters out of it, and he howled like to split the roof beams. The man who did it deserved what your da did to him, twice over. So Roder says, and he knows most everything about dogs. Why did your father decide he wanted dogs all of a sudden? He hasn’t kept any hounds at all, for years. ”

  “To keep them alive, I think. Like the donkey. ”

  “Well, we wondered about that, too. That old donkey, well, we’ll feed him up and see his hooves get fixed, but we wondered what he was for. ” He looked at me. “Was what that town boy told us true?”

  I moved farther down the corridor, away from the others. “A man was killing a dog in the town center when we were there. To make people want to buy her pups. ” Perseverance’s eyes widened as I told him the whole tale. By the time I was finished, his mouth was hanging open.

  “I’d heard Badgerlock had a temper, and no tolerance for cruelty. Huh. ” He breathed out his astonishment. “That was done well. But what’s he going to do with those bulldogs?”

  “What’s usually done with them?”

  He
raised his brows as if surprised I wouldn’t know such a thing. “Well, some men fight them, dog against dog. Or they do bull-baiting. You know, set them on a bull, to harry him down before slaughter. It makes the meat better, so they say. Same for pig. Hey, maybe we can use them to hunt out some of the wild pigs around here. There’s a couple of big old tuskers that have been making a mess of the root fields for the last couple of years. ”

  “Maybe,” I replied. An idea touched me. “Maybe I will ask for one, to be mine. ”

  FitzVigilant was approaching. He looked very fine today, in a blue coat with a white collar and leggings of darker blue. I realized something I hadn’t before, that FitzVigilant dressed like a wealthy merchant while my father’s garb was closer to that of the farmers who came to Oaksbywater to sell their wares. I looked down at myself. Yes. Closer to a farmer’s daughter than to the child of a noble house. Or perhaps even a farmer’s son. My tutor gave me no time to dwell on that. “Well, come along then, come inside and get settled! We’ve lost quite a bit of the morning, so we need to be quick today with our lessons. ”

  No one seemed inclined to remind him that he had been the last to arrive. Instead we did as we were told, settling quickly. Our teacher seemed distracted and almost irritable, as if we were an annoying task to accomplish and be done with rather than the reason he had been brought to Withywoods. He attempted to teach us all a long rhyme about the various kings of the Six Duchies and what each was remembered for, but instead of teaching it in bits, as my mother had taught me “The Twelve Healing Herbs,” he recited all of it for us, and then went round asking each of us to attempt it. Not a one of us made it past the third King, let alone all twenty-three of them, and he professed his disappointment in detail. He recited it again, very rapidly. Larkspur managed to get through four of the verses, mostly correct. Elm broke down in sobs when FitzVigilant made her stand up and try to recite them. He had fixed his eyes on me, and I felt both determination and dread fill me as I slowly stood to recite.

  I was saved by distant angry shouts followed by a booming as if someone was repeatedly slamming a distant door. FitzVigilant looked away from me, scowled, and went to the door of the schoolroom. He gazed in the direction of the noise, still frowning. He was starting to close the door when we all heard a long and chilling scream.

 
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