Fools assassin, p.13
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       Fools Assassin, p.13

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

  Her imaginary child consumed her. She had little time for me or the other things that had once interested her. She spent her evenings and sometimes her nights in her nursery-parlor. I missed her in my bed but did not press her to climb the stairs and join me there. Sometimes of an evening I would join her in her cozy room, bringing whatever translation I was working on. She always welcomed me. Tavia would bring us a tray with cups and herbs, set a kettle to boil on the hearth, and leave us to our own devices. Molly would sit in a cushioned chair, her swollen feet propped up on a small hassock. I had a small table in the corner for my work, and Molly kept her hands busy with knitting or tatting. Sometimes I would hear the ticking of her needles cease. Then I would look up and see her staring into the fire, her hands on her belly and her face wistful. At such times I longed with all my heart that her self-deception were true. Despite our ages, I thought she and I could manage an infant. I even asked her, once, what she thought of us taking in a foundling. She sighed softly and said, “Be patient, Fitz. Your child grows within me. ” So I said no more of it to her. I told myself her fancy brought her happiness, and truly, what harm did it do? I let her go.

  In high summer of that year, I received the news that King Eyod of the Mountains had died. It was not unexpected, but it created a delicate situation. Kettricken, the former Queen of the Six Duchies, was Eyod’s heir; her son King Dutiful was in line after her. Some in the Mountains would hope that she would return to them, to reign there, even though she had often and clearly stated that she expected her son Dutiful to bring the Mountains under his rule as a sort of seventh duchy in our monarchy. Eyod’s death marked a transition that the Six Duchies must observe with gravity and respect. Kettricken would of course travel there, but also King Dutiful and Queen Elliania, the Princes Prosper and Integrity, Skillmistress Nettle, and several of the coterie, Lord Chade, Lord Civil … the list of those who must attend seemed endless, and many minor nobles attached themselves to the party as a way to curry favor. And my name was appended to it. Go I must, as Holder Badgerlock, a minor officer in Kettricken’s guard. Chade insisted, Kettricken requested, Dutiful all but ordered me, and Nettle pleaded. I packed my kit and chose a mount.

  Over the year, Molly’s obsession had ground me down to a weary acceptance. I was not surprised when she declined to accompany me as she felt her “time was very close now. ” A part of me did not wish to leave her when her mind was so unsettled, and another part of me longed for a respite from indulging her delusion. I called Revel aside and asked that he pay special attention to her requests while I was gone. He looked almost offended that I thought such a command necessary. “As ever, sir,” he said, and added his stiff little bow that meant, You idiot.

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  And so I left her and rode away from Withywoods alone and quietly joined the procession of noble folk from the Six Duchies going north to the Mountains for the funeral rites. It was passing strange for me to relive a journey I had once made when I was not yet twenty, and had traveled to the Mountain Kingdom to claim Kettricken as bride for King-in-Waiting Verity. In my second journey to the Mountains, I had often avoided the roads and traveled cross-country with my wolf.

  I had known that Buck had changed. Now I saw that the changes had happened all through the Six Duchies. The roads were wider than I recalled, and the lands more settled. Fields of grain grew where there had once been open pasturage. Towns sprawled along the road, so that sometimes it seemed one scarcely ended before the next began. There were more inns and towns along the way, though the size of our party sometimes overwhelmed the accommodations. The wild lands were being tamed, brought under the plow, and fenced for pasture. I wondered where the wolves hunted now.

  As one of Kettricken’s guardsmen, clad in her white and purple, I rode close to the royal party. Kettricken had never been one to stand upon formality, and her request that I ride at her stirrup was simply accepted by those who knew her. We spoke quietly, the jingling and clopping of the other travelers granting us a strange privacy. I told her stories of my first journey to the Mountains. She spoke of her childhood and of Eyod, not as King but as her loving father. I said nothing of Molly’s disorder to Kettricken. Her sorrow at the death of her father was enough for her to bear.

  My position as a member of her guard meant that I was accommodated at the same inns where Kettricken stayed. Often that meant Nettle was there as well, and sometimes we were able to find a quiet place and time for conversation. It was good to see her and a relief to discuss frankly with her how her mother’s illusion persisted. When Steady joined us, we were not as blunt, but that reticence was Nettle’s choice. I could not decide if she thought her younger brother was too young for such tidings or if she thought it too much of a woman’s matter. Burrich had named his son well. Of all his boys, Steady wore most of Burrich’s features and his sturdy build, and shared, too, his deliberate way of moving and unflinching devotion to both honor and duty. When he was with us, it was as if his father sat at the table. I marked Nettle’s easy dependence on her brother’s strength, and not just for the Skill. I was glad he was so often at her side, and yet wistful. I wished he could have been my son, even as I was glad to see his father live on in him. I think he sensed how I felt. He was deferential to me, and yet there were times when his black eyes bore into mine as if he could see my soul. And at those times, I missed Burrich with a cutting sorrow.

  In more private times Nettle shared with me her mother’s monthly letters detailing the progress of a pregnancy that had now seemingly stretched over two years. It broke my heart to hear Molly’s words as Nettle read aloud of her mulling on names, and progress on her sewing projects for a baby that would never exist. Yet neither one of us had any solution other than to take a small comfort in the sharing of our worry.

  When we arrived in the Mountains, we were given a warm welcome. The bright structures that made up Jhaampe, the Mountain capital, still reminded me of the bells of flowers. The older structures were as I recalled them, incorporating the trees they were built among. But even to the Mountains change had come, and the outskirts of that city were more like the towns of Farrow and Tilth, buildings of stone and plank. It made me sad for I felt that the change was not a good one, as if such structures were a canker growing over the forest.

  For three days we mourned a King whom I had respected deeply, not with wild wailing and oceans of tears, but with quietly shared stories of who he had been and how well he had ruled. His people grieved for their fallen King but in equal measure they welcomed his daughter home. They were happy to see King Dutiful and the Narcheska and the two Princes. Several times I heard people mention with quiet pride that young Integrity greatly resembled Kettricken’s brother and his late uncle, Prince Rurisk. I had not seen that resemblance until I heard it spoken, and then I could not forget it.

  At the end of the time of mourning, Kettricken stood before them and reminded them that her father and King-in-Waiting Chivalry had begun the process of peace between the Six Duchies and the Mountains. She spoke of how wisely they had secured that peace with her marriage to Verity. She asked that they look at her son King Dutiful as their future monarch and recall that the peace they now enjoyed should be viewed as King Eyod’s greatest triumph.

  With the formalities of King Eyod’s funeral over, the true work of the visit commenced. Daily there were meetings with Eyod’s advisors, and there were lengthy discussions on the orderly handing over of the governance of the Mountains. I was present for some of it, sometimes standing at the side of the room, as Chade and Dutiful’s extra eyes and ears, and sometimes sitting outside in the sun, my eyes closed but Skill-linked to both of them in the higher-level meetings. But in the evenings I was sometimes released to have time on my own.

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  And so it was that I found myself standing outside an elaborately carved and painted door, looking wistfully at the work of the Fool’s hands. Here was the house where
he had lived when he thought he had failed to fulfill his fate as the White Prophet. On the night King Shrewd had died, Kettricken had fled Buckkeep and the Fool had gone with her. Together they had made the arduous journey to the Mountain Kingdom, where she believed she and her unborn child would be safe in her father’s home. But there fate dealt the Fool two blows. Kettricken’s child did not live, and news of my death in Regal’s dungeons reached him. He had failed in his quest to ensure there was an heir to the Farseer line. He had failed in his quest to bring about his prophecy. His life as a White Prophet was over.

  When he believed me dead, he had stayed in the Mountains with Kettricken, lived in this small house, and tried to make a little life for himself as a wood carver and toy maker. Then he had found me, broken and dying, and brought me here to the dwelling he shared with Jofron. When he took me in, she had moved out. Once I was recovered, the Fool and I accompanied Kettricken on a hopeless quest to follow her husband’s cold trail into the mountains. He had left the little house and all his tools for Jofron. By the colorfully painted marionettes dangling in the window, I suspected she still lived there and still made toys.

  I did not knock on the door but stood in the long summer evening and studied the carved imps and pecksies that frolicked on the trim of the shutters. Like many of the old-fashioned Mountain dwellings, this structure was painted with bright colors and details, as if it were a child’s treasure box. An emptied treasure box, my friend long gone from it.

  The door opened and yellow lamplight spilled out. A tall, pale lad of about fifteen, fair hair falling to his shoulders, stood framed there. “Stranger, if you seek shelter, you need but knock and ask. You are in the Mountains now. ” He smiled as he spoke and opened wide the door, stepping aside to gesture me in.

  I walked slowly toward him. His features were vaguely familiar. “Does Jofron still live here?”

  His smiled widened. “Lives and works. Grandmother, you have a visitor!”

  I moved slowly into the room. She sat at a workbench by the window, a lamp at her elbow. She was painting something with a small brush, even strokes of goldenrod yellow. “A moment,” she begged without looking up from her task. “If I let this dry between strokes, the color will be uneven. ”

  I said nothing but stood and waited. Jofron’s long blond hair was streaked with silver now. Four braids trapped it away from her face. The cuffs of a brightly embroidered blouse were folded back to her elbows. Her arms were sinewy and flecked with paint, yellow, blue, and a pale green. It was much longer than a moment before she set down her brush and leaned back and turned to me. Her eyes were just as blue as I recalled them. She smiled easily at me. “Welcome, guest. A Buckman, by the look of you. Come to honor our King’s final rest, I take it. ”

  “That is true,” I said.

  When I spoke, recognition flickered and then caught fire in her eyes. She sighed and shook her head slowly. “You. His Catalyst. He stole my heart and lifted my spirit to search for wisdom. Then you came and stole him from me. As was right. ” She lifted a mottled cloth from her work desk and wiped vainly at her fingers. “I never thought to see you under this roof again. ” There was no enmity in her voice, but there was loss. Old loss.

  I spoke words that might comfort her. “When he thought our time together was over, he left me as well, Jofron. Close to fifteen years ago we parted company, and never a word or a visit have I had from him since. ”

  She cocked her head at that. Her grandson closed the door softly. He ventured to the edge of our conversation and cleared his throat. “Stranger, may we offer you tea? Bread? A chair to sit on or a bed for the night?” Plainly the lad longed to know what connection I had to his grandmother, and hoped to lure me to stay.

  “Please bring him a chair and tea,” Jofron told him without consulting me. The lad scuttled off and returned with a straight-backed chair for me. When her blue eyes came back to me, they were full of sympathy. “Truly? Not a word, not a visit?”

  I shook my head. I spoke to her, thinking here was one of the few people in my life who might understand my words. “He said he had lost his sight of the future. That our tasks together were done, and that if we stayed together, we might unwittingly undo some of what we had accomplished. ”

  She received the information without blinking. Then, very slowly, she nodded.

  I stood, uncertain of myself. Old memories of Jofron’s voice as I lay on the floor before that hearth came to me. “I do not think I ever thanked you for helping me when the Fool first brought me here, all those years ago. ”

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  She nodded again, gravely, but corrected me, saying, “I helped the White Prophet. I was called to do so and have never regretted it. ”

  Again the silence stretched between us. It was like trying to converse with a cat. I resorted to banality. “I hope you and your family are well. ”

  And like a cat, her eyes narrowed for just an instant. Then she said, “My son is not here. ”

  “Oh. ”

  She took up her rag again, wiping her fingers very carefully. The grandson returned with a small tray. A little cup, smaller than my closed fist, held one of the aromatic tisanes of the Mountains. I was grateful for the distraction. I thanked him and then sipped from it, tasting wild currant and a certain spice from a Mountain tree bark that I had not tasted in years. It was delicious. I said so.

  Jofron rose from her workbench. She walked across the room, her back very straight. One wall of the room had been shaped in a bas-relief of a tree. It must have been her work, for it had not been that way the last time I had stayed here. Leaves and fruit of all sorts projected from its carved branches. She reached over her head to a large leaf, gently eased it aside to reveal a small cubby, and brought out a little box.

  She returned and showed it to me. It was not the Fool’s work, but I recognized the hands curved protectively to form a lid over the box’s contents. Jofron had carved his hands as a lid for her box. I nodded at her that I understood. She moved her fingers and I heard a distinctive snick, as if a hidden catch had given way. When she opened the little box, a fragrance came from it, unfamiliar but enticing. She was not trying to hide its contents from me. I saw small scrolls, at least four and possibly more concealed under them. She took one from the box and closed the lid.

  “This was his most recent message to me,” she said.

  Most recent. I knew a moment of the sharpest, greenest envy I had ever felt. He had not sent me as much as a bird message, but Jofron had a small casket of scrolls! The soft brown paper was tied closed with a slender orange ribbon. She tugged at it and it gave way. Very gently she unrolled it. Her eyes moved over it. I thought she would read it aloud to me. Instead she lifted her blue gaze and met my eyes in an uncompromising stare. “This one is short. No news of his life. No fond greeting, no wish for my continued health. Only a warning. ”

  “A warning?”

  There was no hostility in her face, only determination. “A warning that I should protect my son. That I should say nothing of him to strangers who might ask. ”

  “I don’t understand. ”

  She lifted one shoulder. “Nor do I. But understanding completely is not necessary for me to take heed of his warning. And so I tell you, my son is not here. And that is all I will say about him. ”

  Did she think me a danger? “I did not even know you had a son. Nor a grandson. ” My thoughts rattled like seeds in a dry pod. “And I did not ask after him. Nor am I a stranger to you. ”

  She nodded agreeably to each of my statements. Then she asked, “Did you enjoy your tea?”

  “Yes. Thank you. ”

  “My eyes tire easily these day. I find sleeping helps, for then I wake refreshed, to do my best work in the early dawn light. ” She spindled the little brown paper, and looped the orange ribbon round it. As I watched she returned it to the box. And shut the lid.

  The Mountain folk were so courteous. Sh
e would not tell me to get out of her house. But it would have been the worst of manners for me to attempt to stay. I rose immediately. Perhaps if I left right away, I could come back tomorrow and try again to ask more about the Fool. I should go now, quietly. I knew I should not ask. I did. “How did the messages reach you, please?”

  “By many hands and a long way. ” She almost smiled. “The one who put this last one into my hands is long gone from here. ”

  I looked at her face and knew that this was my final chance for words with her. She would not see me tomorrow. “Jofron, I am not a danger to you or your family. I came to bid farewell to a wise King who treated me well. Thank you for letting me know that the Fool sent you messages. At least I know that he still lives. I shall keep that comfort as your kindness to me. ” I stood up and bowed deep to her.

  I think I saw a tiny crack in her façade, the smallest offer of sympathy when she said, “The last message arrived two years ago. And it had taken at least a year to reach me. So as to the White Prophet’s fate, neither of us can be certain. ”

  Her word brought cold to my heart. Her grandson had gone to the door and opened it, holding it for me. “I thank you for your hospitality,” I said to both of them. I set the tiny cup on the corner of her worktable, bowed again, and left. I did not try to return the next day.

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  Two days later, King Dutiful and his retinue departed from the Mountains. Kettricken remained behind to have more time with her extended family and her people and to assure her people that she would more often visit there as they began the long transition to becoming the seventh duchy under King Dutiful.

  Unnoticed, I remained behind as well, lingering until the last of the King’s company were out of sight, and then waiting until late afternoon before I departed. I wanted to ride alone and think. I left Jhaampe with no care or thought as to where I would sleep that night or how.

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