Fools assassin, p.9
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       Fools Assassin, p.9

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

  “I need a torch. I know where he hid the key. I have to go to the Women’s Garden and the statue of Eda. ”

  Chade took a sudden gasp of air. For an instant I feared it was his final breath. Then Dutiful said fiercely, “That was the key. The old spider is Chade. Eda, in the Women’s Garden. ”

  As he said the goddess’s name, it was as if heavy draperies were parted and Chade opened to the Skill. Dutiful sent out a Skill-summoning for Nettle, Thick, and Steady, but he did not wait for the rest of the King’s coterie to arrive.

  “Does he have the strength for this?” I demanded, knowing well that a forced healing burns the reserves of a man’s body without mercy. The magic itself does not heal; it but forces the body to speed the process.

  “We can let what remains of his strength be slowly consumed by his dying, or we can burn it up trying to heal him. If you were Chade, which would you prefer?”

  I set my teeth against my reply. I did not know. I did know that Chade and Dutiful had once made that decision for me and that I still lived with the consequences: a body that aggressively repaired every ill done to it, whether I would or no. But surely I could keep that fate from befalling Chade; I would know when to stop the healing. I made that resolution and refused to wonder if that was the choice Chade would have made for himself.

  I secured my Skill-link with Dutiful and together we sank into Chade. Dimly I was aware of Nettle coming to join us, and then Thick, bewildered with sleepiness but obedient to the call, and finally Steady surging in to add his strength to our melded effort.

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  I led. I was not the strongest of the Skilled there. That would be Thick, his natural talent disguised by the façade of his simple-mindedness. Steady was next, a well of strength for a Skill-user even if he seemed unable to reach within himself and use it on his own. Dutiful was better taught in the varied uses of the Skill than I was, and Nettle, my daughter, more intuitive in how she wielded it. But I led by virtue of my years and my hard-won knowledge of how a man’s body is put together. Chade himself had taught me those things—not as a healer, but as an assassin’s apprentice, to know where a pressed finger can choke a man, or a small blade make a gout of blood leap out with every beat of his heart.

  Even so, I did not “see” within Chade’s body with my Skill. Rather, I listened to his body, and felt where it struggled to repair itself. I lent strength and purpose to that effort, and used my knowledge to apply it where the need was greatest. Pain is not always the best indicator of damage. The greater pain can confuse the mind into thinking that is the place of most damage. And so, Skill-linked as we were to Chade, we swam against the tide of his pain and fear to see the hidden damages behind the bone of his skull, a place of constriction where once blood had rushed freely, and a pocket of pooled blood that had gone toxic.

  I had the collected strength of a trained coterie behind me, something I had never experienced before. It was a heady sensation. I drew their attention to what I wished repaired and they united their strength to persuade Chade’s body to focus its energy there. It was so easy. The tempting possibilities of what I could do unfurled before me in a lush tapestry. What I could do! I could remake the man, restore him to youth! But the coins of Chade’s flesh were not mine to spend. We had strength and to spare for our task, but Chade did not. And so, when I felt that we had lent his body as much of our strength as it could use and directed it effectively, I drew the coterie back, shepherding them out of Chade’s flesh as if they were a well-meaning flock of chickens trespassing in a garden.

  I opened my eyes to the darkened room and a circle of anxious candlelit faces. Trickles of perspiration lined Steady’s face; the collar of his shirt was wet with it. He was breathing like a messenger who had just delivered his baton. Nettle’s chin was propped in both her hands, her fingers splayed across her face. Thick’s mouth hung ajar, and my King’s hair was sweated flat to his brow. I blinked and felt the distant drumbeat of a headache to come. I smiled at them. “We’ve done what we can. Now we must leave him alone and let his body take its time. ” I stood slowly. “Go. Go rest now. Go on. There’s no more to do here just now. ” I shooed them out of the room, ignoring their reluctance to leave.

  Steady now leaned on his sister’s arm. “Feed him,” I whispered as they passed. My daughter nodded. “Yah,” Thick agreed heartily and followed them. Only Dutiful dared defy me, resuming his seat by Chade’s bed. His dog sighed and dropped to the floor at his feet. I shook my head at them, took my place, and ignored my own orders to them as I reached for Chade’s awareness.

  Chade?

  What has happened? What happened to me? His mind touch was muzzy and confused.

  You fell and struck your head. You were unconscious. And because you had sealed yourself to the Skill, we found it hard to reach you and heal you.

  I felt his instant of panic. He reached out to his body like a man patting his pockets to be sure a cutpurse had not robbed him. I knew he found the tracks we had left and that they were extensive. I’m so weak. I nearly died, didn’t I? Give me water, please. Why did you let me sink so low?

  At his rebuke, I felt a flash of anger. I counseled myself that now was not the time. I held the cup to his lips, propping his head as I did so. Eyes closed, he lipped feebly at the edge of the cup and sucked water in noisily. I refilled the cup and this time he drank more slowly. When he turned away from it as a sign he had had enough, I set it aside and asked him, “Why were you so obtuse? You didn’t even let any of us know that you’d sealed yourself against the Skill. And why do it at all?”

  He was still too weak to speak. I took his hand again, and his thoughts touched mine.

  Protect the King. I know too many of his secrets. Too many Farseer secrets. Cannot leave such a chink in armor. All coteries should be sealed.

  Then how could we reach one another?

  Shielded only when asleep. Awake, I would sense who was reaching for me.

  You were not asleep. You were unconscious and you needed us.

  Unlikely. Just … a bit of bad luck. And if it did … you came. You understood the riddle.

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  His thoughts were fading. I knew how weary he was. My own body had begun to clamor at me for rest. Skilling was serious work. As draining as hunting. Or fighting. It had been a fight, hadn’t it? An invasion of Chade’s private territory …

  I twitched awake. I still held Chade’s hand, but he was deeply asleep now. Dutiful sprawled in his chair on the other side of the bed, snoring softly. His dog lifted his head to stare at me for a moment, and then dropped it back to his forepaws. We were all exhausted. By the last flames on the candle stubs, I studied Chade’s ravaged face. He looked as if he had fasted for days. The pads of flesh on his cheeks were gone, and I saw the shape of his skull. The hand I still held was a bundle of bones in a sack of skin. He would live now, but he would be days rebuilding his body and his strength. Tomorrow he would be ravenous.

  I leaned back with a sigh. My back ached from sleeping in the chair. The rugs on the floor of the chamber were thick and inviting. I stretched out on the floor by his bedside like a faithful dog. I slept.

  I came awake to Thick stepping on my hand. I sat up with a curse, nearly knocking the tray from his hands. “You should not sleep on the floor!” he rebuked me.

  I sat up, trapping my bruised fingers under my arm. It was hard to argue with Thick’s remark. I clambered to my feet and then dropped back into my familiar chair. In the bed Chade was partially propped up. The old man was skeletal, and his grin at my discomfort was frightening in his wasted face. Dutiful’s chair was empty. Thick was arranging the tray on Chade’s lap. I smelled tea and biscuits and warmed jam. A bowl on the tray held soft-cooked eggs mashed up with a little butter, salt, and pepper next to a rank of thick rashers of bacon. I wanted to fall on it and devour it all. I think it must have showed on my face, for Chade’s bony grin widened. He didn’
t speak, but flapped a hand, dismissing me.

  Once I would have gone directly to the kitchens. As a boy, I’d been Cook’s pet there. As a youngster and then a young man, I’d eaten with the guardsmen in their noisy and untidy dining hall. Now I Skilled to King Dutiful, asking if he’d eaten yet. I was immediately invited to join him and his mother in a private chamber. I went, anticipating food and the good conversation that would go with it.

  Kettricken and Dutiful were both waiting for me. Kettricken, true to her Mountain heritage, had arisen early and eaten lightly. Still she shared a table with us, a delicate cup of pale tea steaming before her. Dutiful was as hungry as I was, and even wearier, for he had gotten up early to share details about Chade’s healing with her. A small caravan of pages arrived with food and arranged it for us on the table. Dutiful dismissed them, and the door closed to leave us in relative privacy. Other than a morning greeting, Kettricken held her silence while we filled our plates and then our bellies.

  After we had emptied our first plates, Dutiful talked, sometimes through a mouthful of food, while I ate. The healers had visited Lord Chade while I slept. They had been horrified at how wasted he was, but his appetite and short temper had convinced them he would mend. Steady had been royally forbidden to lend strength to Chade in any attempt to seal himself again. Dutiful hoped that would be enough to prevent future mishaps. Privately I suspected that Chade could always find a way to either bribe or deceive Thick into helping him.

  When our eating had slowed, and Kettricken had filled our cups with tea for the third time, she spoke softly. “Once again, FitzChivalry, you have answered our desperate call. You can see how much we still need you. I know you enjoy your quiet life now, and I will not dispute that you have earned it. But I will ask you to consider spending perhaps one month of every season here at Buckkeep Castle with us. I am sure that Lady Molly would enjoy being closer to both Nettle and Steady for those times. Swift also comes and goes frequently. She must miss her sons, and I know that we would love to have you here. ”

  It was an old discussion. I had been proffered this invitation any number of times, in all sorts of forms. We had been offered chambers in the keep, a lovely house atop the cliffs with an amazing view of the waters below, a cozy cottage on the edge of the sheep meadows, and now the offer of coming and going as guests four times a year. I smiled at both of them. They read the answer in my eyes.

  For me, it was not a question of where I lived. It was that I did not want a day-to-day intimacy with the politics of being a Farseer. Dutiful had previously opined that enough time had passed that few people would even care if FitzChivalry Farseer were miraculously resurrected from the dead, no matter how much disgrace had once been attached to me. I doubted that. But even as the humbler Holder Tom Badgerlock, even Lord Badgerlock, as they had offered, I did not wish to navigate those waters again. It was inevitable that their currents would drag me down and away from Molly and drown me in Farseer politics. They knew that as clearly as I did.

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  So now I said only, “If you have urgent need of me, I will always come. I think I’ve demonstrated that, over and over. And having used the stones once to get here swiftly, if need drives me hard, I would probably do it again. But I do not think I will ever again live within the keep walls, or be advisor to the throne. ”

  Kettricken drew breath as if to speak and Dutiful said quietly, “Mother. ” It was not a rebuke. Perhaps a reminder that we had trodden this path before. Kettricken looked at me and smiled.

  “It’s kind of you to invite me,” I told her. “Truly it is. If you didn’t, I’d fear that you thought me useless now. ”

  She returned my smile, and we finished our meal. As we rose, I said, “I’m going to visit Chade, and if he seems strong enough that I’m not fearful for him, I will want to return to Withywoods today. ”

  “Via the stones?” Kettricken asked me.

  I wanted, badly, to be at home. Was that why the thought tempted me? Or was it the lure of the Skill-current that flowed so deep and swift behind those graven surfaces? They were both watching me closely. Dutiful spoke softly. “Remember what the Black Man told you. Using the stones too often in quick succession is dangerous. ”

  I needed no reminder. The memory of losing weeks inside a pillar chilled me. I gave my head a small shake, scarce able to believe that I had even considered using the Skill portals for my return journey. “Can I borrow a horse?”

  Dutiful smiled. “You can have any horse in the stable, Fitz. You know that. Choose a good one to add to your stock. ”

  I did know that. But it wasn’t a thing I would ever take for granted.

  It was mid-afternoon when I went to see the old man. Chade was propped up by a multitude of pillows in all shades of green velvet. The drapes of his bed were pulled back and secured with heavy cords of twisted silk. The bell pull had been placed within his reach, as had a bedside table with a bowl of hothouse fruit. There were fruits and nuts that I did not recognize, evidence of our lively trade with new partners to the south. His hair had been freshly brushed and bound back in a warrior’s tail. It had been shot with gray when first I met him, and now it gleamed an even silver. The purpled swelling and bruise had vanished, leaving only a yellowish-brown shadow where they had been. His green eyes were as bright as polished jade. But those signs of health could not restore the flesh he had lost to our forced healing. He was, I thought, a very vital skeleton. As I entered the room, he set aside a scroll he had been reading.

  “What is that you are wearing?” I demanded curiously.

  He glanced down at himself without the slightest shadow of self-consciousness. “A bed jacket, I think it is called. A gift from a Jamaillian noblewoman who arrived with a trade envoy a few months ago. ” He smoothed his fingers down the heavily embroidered sleeve. “It’s quite comfortable, really. It’s meant to keep the shoulders and back warm if one decides to stay in bed and read. ”

  I drew a stool up beside his bed and sat down. “It seems to be a very specialized garment. ”

  “In that, it is very Jamaillian. Did you know that they have a special robe to wear while they are praying to their two-faced god? You put it on one direction if you’re begging something of the male aspect, or turn it round if you’re praying to the female aspect. And …” He sat up straighter in bed, his face becoming more animated as it always did when he fastened on to one of his fascinations. “If a woman is pregnant, she wears one sort of garment to ensure a boy child, and another for a daughter. ”

  “And does that work?” I was incredulous.

  “It’s supposed to be helpful, but not absolute. Why? Are you and Molly still trying for a child?”

  Chade had never regarded any part of my life as private since he’d learned of my existence. And he never would. It was easier to tell him than to rebuke him for his prying. “No. We’ve had no real hope left for some time. She’s long past her bearing years now. Nettle will be our only daughter. ”

  His face softened. “I’m sorry, Fitz. I’ve been told that nothing completes a man’s life in quite the way that children do. I know that you wanted—”

  I interrupted. “I had the raising of Hap. I flatter myself that I did well enough for a man handed an eight-year-old orphan at short notice. He keeps in touch with me still, when his travels and minstrel duties allow it. And Nettle turned out well, and Molly has shared all her younger children with me. I watched Hearth and Just grow to manhood, and we watched them ride off together. Those were good years, Chade. There’s no good to be had from pining after lost chances. I have Molly. And truly, she’s enough for me. She’s my home. ”

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  And there, I’d successfully cut him off before he could importune me to stay awhile, or move back to Buckkeep Castle just for a season or a year or two. His litany was as familiar as Kettricken’s, but flavored more with guilt than duty. He was an old man, and still had
so much to teach me. I had always been his most promising student. Dutiful still had need of an accomplished assassin, and I was a unique weapon in that the young King could converse silently with me via the Skill. And there was the Skill itself. There were still so many mysteries to unravel. So much translating left to do, so many secrets and techniques to be mined from the trove of scrolls we had retrieved from Aslevjal.

  I knew all his arguments and persuasions. Over the years I had heard them all. And resisted them all. Repeatedly. Yet the game had to be played. It had become our farewell ritual. As had his assigning of tasks.

  “Well, if you will not stay and do the work with me,” he said, just as if we had already discussed it all, “then will you at least take some of the burden with you?”

  “As always,” I assured him.

  He smiled. “Lady Rosemary has packed a selection of scrolls for you, and arranged a mule from the stables to bear them. She was going to put them in a pack but I told her you would be traveling by horseback. ”

  I nodded silently. Years ago Rosemary had taken my place as his apprentice. She had served him now for a score of years, doing the “quiet work” of an assassin and spy for the royal family. No. Longer than that. Idly I wondered if she had yet taken an apprentice of her own.

  But Chade’s voice called me back to the present as he listed off some herbs and roots he wished me to obtain discreetly for him. He brought up again his idea that the crown should station an apprentice Skill-user at Withywoods to provide swift communication with Buckkeep Castle. I reminded him that as a Skill-user, I could facilitate that myself without welcoming another of his spies into my household. He smiled at that and diverted me to a discussion as to how often the stones could be used and how safely. As the only living person who had been lost in the stones and survived, I tended to be more conservative than Chade the experimenter. This time, at least, he did not challenge my opinion.

 
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