Fools AssassinRobin Hobb
My dear Lady Fennis,
We have been friends far too long for me to be circumspect. As you so delicately hinted, yes, there has been shattering news delivered to me. My stepson, Prince Chivalry, has exposed himself as the crude fellow I have always known him to be. His bastard child, fathered on a Mountain whore, has been revealed.
As shameful as that is, it could have been handled far more discreetly if his clever-as-a-stone brother Prince Verity had taken swift and decisive action to eliminate the disgrace. Instead he has announced the child in an indiscreet message to my husband.
And so, in the face of this base disgrace, what does my lord do? Why, not only does he insist the bastard must be brought to Buckkeep Castle, he then bestows on Chivalry the title to Withywoods, and sends him out to pasture there with his graceless, barren wife. Withywoods! A fine estate that any number of my friends would be pleased to occupy, and he rewards it to his son for fathering a bastard with a foreign commoner! Nor does King Shrewd find it distasteful that said bastard has been brought back here to Buckkeep Castle where any member of my court may see the little Mountain savage.
And the final insult to me and my son? He has decreed that Prince Verity will now take up the title of King-in-Waiting, and be the next presumed heir to the throne. When Chivalry had the decency to secede his claim in the face of this disgrace, I secretly rejoiced, believing that Regal would immediately be recognized as the next King. While he may be younger than both his half-brothers, no one can dispute that his bloodlines are more noble, and his bearing as lordly as his name.
Truly, I am wasted here. As wasted as my son, Regal. When I gave up my own reign and titles to be Shrewd’s Queen, it was in the belief that any child I bore him would be seen as possessing far better lineage than the two reckless boys his former Queen gave him, and would reign after Shrewd. But does he now look at Chivalry and admit his mistake in naming him heir? No. Instead he sets him aside only to install his doltish younger brother as King-in-Waiting. Verity. Hulking, square-faced Verity, with all the grace of an ox.
It is too much, my dear. Too much for me to bear. I would leave court, save that Regal would then be without a defender here.
Missive from Queen Desire to Lady Fennis of Tilth
I hated her when I was a boy. I recall the first time I found that missive, unfinished and never sent. I read it, confirming for myself that the Queen I had never formally met had, indeed, hated me from the moment she knew of me. I made it mutual. I never asked Chade how he came by that letter. A bastard himself and half-brother to King Shrewd, Chade had never hesitated in pursuing the best interests of the Farseer throne. He had purloined it from Queen Desire’s desk, perhaps. Perhaps it had been his ploy to make it appear that the Queen snubbed Lady Fennis by not responding to her letter. Does it matter now? I do not know, for I do not know what effect my old mentor gained with his theft.
Yet I do wonder, sometimes, if it was an accident that I found and read Queen Desire’s letter to Lady Fennis, or if it was a deliberate revelation on Chade’s part. He was my mentor in those days, teaching me the assassin’s arts. Chade served his King ruthlessly, as assassin, spy, and manipulator of the court at Buckkeep Castle, and taught me to do the same. A royal bastard, he told me, is safe in a court only so long as he is useful. Ostensibly I was a lowly bastard, ignored or reviled as I navigated the dangerous currents of politics in the castle. But both King Shrewd and I knew that I was protected by the King’s hand and his assassin. It was not only poisons and knife-work and subterfuge that he taught me, but what one must do to survive as a bastard of royal lineage. Did he seek to give me warning, or teach me to hate that I might be more firmly his? Even those questions come to me too late.
Over the years I have seen Queen Desire in so many guises. First she was the horrid woman who hated my father and hated me even more, the woman with the power to snatch the crown from my father’s head and condemn me to a life where even my name was the mark of my bastardy. I recall a time in my life when I feared even to let her see me.
Years after I arrived at Buckkeep, when my father was murdered at Withywoods, hers was the hand most likely behind it. And yet there was nothing I or Chade could do about it, no justice we could demand. I remember wondering if King Shrewd did not know or if he did not care. I remember knowing with absolute certainty that if Queen Desire wished my death, she could ask for it. I even wondered then if Chade would protect me or if he would bow to his duty and allow it to happen. Such things for a child to wonder.
Withywoods was an idea to me, a harsh place of banishment and humiliation. When I was a boy and I lived in Buckkeep, I was told that was where my father had gone, to hide from the shame that was me. He had abdicated his throne and crown; bowed his head to the hurt and anger of his lawful wife, Patience; apologized to King and court for his failure of virtue and judgment; and fled from the bastard he had sired. Page 2
And so I imagined that place based on the only places I had ever lived, as a fortified castle on a hill. I had thought of it as a place like the stockade fortress at Moonseye in the Mountain Kingdom, or the steep walls of Buckkeep Castle perched on top of sheer and forbidding black cliffs overlooking the sea. I had imagined my father, brooding alone in a chill stone hall hung with battle pennants and ancient arms. I imagined stony fields that gave onto gray-fogged marshes.
Later I would discover that Withywoods was a grand manor, a large and comfortable home built in a wide and generous valley. Its walls were not of stone, but of golden oak and rich maple, and though the floors of the halls were flagged with flat river stone, the walls were paneled in warm wood. The gentle sunlight of the farming valley fell in broad stripes into the rooms through the tall, narrow windows. The carriageway to the front door was wide, and graceful white birches lined it. In autumn they shed a carpet of gold on the road, and in winter, burdened with snow, they arched over it, a frosted white tunnel paned with glimpses of blue sky.
Withywoods was not a fortress banishment, not an exile, but a tolerant pasturing-out for my father and his barren wife. I think my grandfather had loved my father as much as his stepmother hated him. King Shrewd sent him to that distant estate to be safe.
And when my time came to go there, with the woman I loved and her lively boys and the woman who had always wanted to be my mother, it became for a time a haven of rest and peace for us.
Time is an unkind teacher, delivering lessons that we learn far too late for them to be useful. Years after I could have benefited from them, the insights come to me. Now I look back on “old” King Shrewd and see him as a man beset by a long and wasting illness that stole from him the comfort of his own body and the sharpness of his mind. But worse, I see Queen Desire for what she was: not an evil woman intent on making my little life miserable, but a mother full of ruthless love for her only son, intent that he should never be slighted in any way. She would stop at nothing to put him on a throne.
What would I not have done to protect my little daughter? What action would have been too extreme? If I say, “I would have killed them all, with no regrets,” does that make me a monster?
Or just a father?
But it is all hindsight. All these lessons, learned too late. When I was still a young man, I felt in my flesh like a bent old gaffer, full of pains and sighs. Oh, how I pitied myself, and justified every wild decision I had ever made! And then, when it came time for me to be the wise elder of my household, I was trapped in the body of a man of middle years, still subject to those passions and impulses, still relying on the strength of my right arm when I would have been wiser to stop and employ my powers of reason.
Lessons learned too late. Insig
hts discovered decades later.
And so much lost as a result.
Burrich, old friend,
Well, we are settled here, I suppose. It has not been a pleasant time for me, or for you if your somewhat terse message conceals as much as I suspect it does. The house is immense, far too large for the two of us. It is so like you to ask after our mounts before inquiring after my own health. I will answer that query first. I’m pleased to tell you that Silk has taken the change in stable quite calmly, as the well-mannered palfrey she has always been. Tallfellow, in contrast, has made a new hobby out of bullying the resident stallion, but we have taken steps to be sure their stalls and paddocks are well separated now. I’ve reduced his grain and there is a young stableman here named, oddly enough, Tallman, who was absolutely ecstatic to receive my request that he take the horse out and run him hard at least once a day. With such a regimen, I am sure he will soon settle.
My lady wife. You did not ask after her, but I know you well, my friend. So I will tell you that Patience has been furious, wounded, melancholy, hysterical, and altogether of a hundred different minds about the situation. She berates me that I was unfaithful to her before we met, and in the next instant forgives me and blames herself that she has not furnished me an heir, given that “it is evident that the problem is entirely with me. ” Somehow, we two will weather this.
I appreciate that you have taken charge of my other responsibilities there. My brother has told me enough of your charge’s temperament that I send my sympathy to both of you and my deepest thanks. On whom else could I rely at a time such as this, for a favor so extreme?
I trust you to understand why I remain circumspect in this regard. Give Vixen a pat, a hug, and a large bone from me. I am confident that I owe as much to her vigilance as to yours. My wife is calling for me down the halls. I must end this and send it on its way. My brother may have words for you from me when next your paths cross.
Unsigned letter from Chivalry to Stablemaster Burrich
Fresh snowfall perched in white ramparts on the bare black birch limbs that lined the drive. White gleamed against black, like a fool’s winter motley. The snow came down in loose clumps of flakes, adding a fresh layer of glistening white to the banked snow in the courtyard. It was softening the hard ridges of fresh wheel tracks in the carriageway, erasing the boys’ footprints in the snow and smoothing the rutted pathways to mere suggestions of themselves. As I watched, another carriage arrived, drawn by a dapple-gray team. The driver’s red-cloaked shoulders were dusted with snow. A page in green and yellow darted from the steps of Withywoods to open the carriage door and gesture a welcome to our guests. From my vantage I could not tell who they were, save that their garb bespoke Withy merchants rather than gentry from one of the neighboring estates. As they passed out of my view and their driver moved the carriage off to our stables, I looked up at the afternoon sky. Definitely more to come. I suspected it would snow all night. Well, that was fitting. I let the curtain fall and turned as Molly entered our bedchamber.
“Fitz! You aren’t ready yet?”
I glanced down at myself. “I thought I was …”
My wife clicked her tongue at me. “Oh, Fitz. It’s Winterfest. The halls are festooned with greenery, Patience had Cook create a feast that will probably sustain the whole household for three days, all three sets of minstrels that she invited are tuning up, and half our guests have already arrived. You should be down there, greeting them as they arrive. And you’re not even dressed yet. ”
I thought of asking her what was wrong with what I was wearing, but she was already digging through my clothing chest, lifting garments, considering them, and discarding them. I waited. “This,” she said, pulling out a white linen shirt with ridges of lace down the sleeves. “And this jerkin over it. Everyone knows that wearing green at Winterfest is good luck. With your silver chain to match the buttons. These leggings. They’re old-fashioned enough to make you look like an old man, but at least they’re not as saggy as those you have on. I know better than to ask you to wear your new trousers. ”
“I am an old man. At forty-seven, surely I’m allowed to dress as I please. ”
She lowered her brows and gave me a mock glare. She set her hands to her hips. “Are you calling me an old woman, sirrah? For I seem to recall I have three years on you. ”
“Of course not!” I hastily amended my words. But I could not resist grumbling, “But I have no idea why everyone wishes to dress as if they are Jamaillian nobility. The fabric on those trousers is so thin, the slightest bramble would tear them, and …”
She looked up at me with an exasperated sigh. “Yes. I’ve heard it from you a hundred times. Let’s ignore that there are few brambles inside Withywoods, shall we? So. Take these clean leggings. The ones you have on are a disgrace; didn’t you wear them yesterday when you were helping with that horse that had a cracked hoof? And put on your house shoes, not those worn boots. You’ll be expected to dance, you know. ”
She straightened from her excavation of my clothing chest. Conceding to the inevitable, I’d already begun shedding garments. As I thrust my head out of the shirt, my gaze met hers. She was smiling in a familiar way, and as I considered her holly crown, the cascading lace on her blouse and gaily embroidered kirtle, I found a smile to answer hers. Her smile broadened even as she took a step back from me. “Now, Fitz. We’ve guests below, waiting for us. ”
“They’ve waited this long, they can wait a bit longer. Our daughter can mind them. ”
I advanced a step. She retreated to the door and set her hand to the knob, all the while shaking her head so that her black ringlets danced on her brow and shoulders. She lowered her head and looked up at me through her lashes, and suddenly she seemed just a girl to me again. A wild Buckkeep Town girl, to be pursued down a sandy beach. Did she remember? Perhaps, for she caught her lower lip between her teeth and I saw her resolve almost weaken. Then, “No. Our guests can’t wait, and while Nettle can welcome them, a greeting from the daughter of the house is not the same as an acknowledgment from you and me. Riddle may stand at her shoulder as our steward and help her, but until the King gives his permission for them to wed, we should not present them as a couple. So it is you and I who must wait. Because I’m not going to be content with ‘a bit’ of your time tonight. I expect better effort than that from you. ”
“Really?” I challenged her. I took two swift steps toward her, but with a girlish shriek she was out the door. As she pulled it almost shut, she added through the crack, “Hurry up! You know how quickly Patience’s parties can get out of hand. I’ve left Nettle in charge of things, but you know, Riddle is very nearly as bad as Patience. ” A pause. “And do not dare to be late and leave me with no dancing partner!”
She shut the door just as I reached it. I halted and then, with a small sigh, went back for my clean leggings and soft shoes. She would expect me to dance, and I would do my best. I did know that Riddle was apt to enjoy himself at any sort of festivity at Withywoods with an abandon that was very unlike the reserved fellow he showed himself at Buckkeep, and perhaps not precisely correct for a man who was ostensibly just our former household steward. I found myself smiling. Where he led, sometimes Nettle followed, showing a merry side of herself that she, too, seldom revealed at the King’s court. Hearth and Just, the two of Molly’s six grown sons who were still at home, would need very little encouragement to join in. As Patience had invited half of Withy and far more musicians than could perform in one evening, I fully expected that our Winterfest revelry would last at least three days.
With some reluctance, I removed my leggings and pulled on the trousers. They were a dark green that was nearly black, thin linen, and almost as voluminous as a skirt. They tied at my waist with ribbons. A broad silk sash completed the ridiculous garment. I told myself that m
y wearing them would please Molly. I suspected that Riddle would have been bothered into donning similar garb. I sighed again, wondering why we must all emulate Jamaillian fashions, and then resigned myself to it. I finished dressing, badgered my hair into a warrior’s tail, and left our bedchamber. I paused at the top of the grand oak staircase; the sounds of merriment drifted up to me. I took a breath as if I were about to dive into deep water. I had nothing to fear, no reason to hesitate, and yet the ingrained habits of my distant boyhood still clutched at me. I had every right to descend this stair, to walk among the glad company below as master of the house and husband to the lady who owned it. Now I was known as Holder Tom Badgerlock, common-born perhaps but elevated alongside Lady Molly to gentry status. The bastard FitzChivalry Farseer—grandson and nephew and cousin to kings—had been laid to rest twoscore years ago. To the folk below, I was Holder Tom and the founder of the feast they would enjoy.
Even if I was wearing silly Jamaillian trousers.
I paused a moment longer, listening. I could hear two distinct groups of minstrels vying to tune their instruments. Riddle’s laugh rang suddenly clear and loud, making me smile. The hum of voices from the Great Hall lifted in volume and then fell again. One set of minstrels gained ascendancy, for a lively drumbeat suddenly broke through the voices to dominate all. The dancing would soon begin. Truly, I was late, and had best descend. Yet there was sweetness to standing here, above it all, imagining Nettle’s flashing feet and sparkling eyes as Riddle led her through the dance steps. Oh, and Molly! She would be waiting for me! I had become a passable dancer over the years, for her sake, as she loved it so. She would not easily forgive me if I left her standing.
I hurried down the polished oak steps two at a time, reached the hall foyer, and was there suddenly ambushed by Revel. Our new young steward was looking very fine indeed in a white shirt, black jacket, and black trousers in the Jamaillian fashion. His green house shoes were startling, as was the yellow scarf at his throat. Green and yellow were the Withywoods colors, and I suspected these accoutrements were Patience’s idea. I did not let the smile curve my mouth but I think he read it in my eyes. He stood even taller and looked down at me as he soberly informed me, “Sir, there are minstrels at the door. ”